Review - BIG FISH Makes Wholesome The New Hip
Wholesomeness gets a bad rap on Broadway these days, usually regarded as the kind of unbearably sweet and inoffensive entertainment that sophisticated theatergoers must endure while taking their conservative grandmas out for a night on the town.
But Big Fish, the new musical that tattoos its heart on its arm, displays no fear in plopping its unabashed wholesomeness right in your lap. Its spirit is steeped in Rodgers and Hammerstein decency that propels an evening that's adventurous, romantic and, yeah, kinda hip.
That said, the work of Andrew Lippa (score) and John August (book, based on his own screenplay of Daniel Wallace's novel) is not exactly top shelf musical theatre (although on paper Big Fish easily outclasses any original-run Broadway musical currently on the boards) but director/choreographer Susan Stroman, at the top of her game, whips this warmhearted story into a supremely imaginative and heart-tugging entertainment.
Stroman's choreography isn't showy, but it's the most character-driven of her Broadway career. Her production is sumptuously enhanced by the efforts of a crack design team. Julian Crouch's opulent, homespun set easily glides back and forth through years of fact and fantasy, embellished by Benjamin Pearcy's clever projections. William Ivey Long contributes another one of his eye-pleasing collection of costumes and he and lighting designer Donald Holder achieve one of those terrific eye-tricking moments that drew a big round of applause the night I attended. Jon Weston's sound designs include many charming details. But their extraordinary work always serves to support the story with warmth instead of overwhelming it with dazzle. Nothing stands out except everything.
Okay, maybe one thing stands out and that's the performance of one Norbert Leo Butz. A two-time Tony Award winner and an untrained dancer who has nevertheless nabbed two Astaire Awards for his eccentric, character-based light-fantastic tripping, Butz has claimed an unusual route to musical theatre stardom; playing everyday Joes who dare to dream big while giving the appearance of being an everyday Joe who was plunked into the middle of a Broadway musical.
But despite the awards and accolades, he was only playing second leads in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can. As Edward Bloom, the traveling salesman from Alabama with a passion for living and a talent for inventing elaborate fish stories of his life on the road - meant to inspire and entertain his young son, Will (Zachary Unger) - Butz is the vibrantly beating heart of Big Fish, and he responds with the best performance of his New York career.
The first musical moment has the self-appointed hero telling the tale of how he helped an unlucky fisherman by teaching him an elaborate stomp that makes the little swimmers leap out of the river and into his hands. Butz gives the appearance that he's making up the crazy dance on the spot and soon he's joined by all the characters we'll soon meet as part of his storybook adventures, including an alluring mermaid (Sarrah Strimel), a lonely giant (wryly funny Ryan Andes), a circus ringmaster with a secret (show-bizzy Brad Oscar) and a mysterious masked villain (Ben Crawford, playing an oafish romantic rival who gets borrowed for one tale.) Edward credits his heroic spirit to being told by a witch (Ciara Renee) exactly how he's going to die, allowing him to rush into dangerous situations feeling indestructible.
Blended inside these stories is the real-life experience of winning the heart of the love of his life, his wife, Sandra (Kate Baldwin), while regretting having to break the heart of his high school steady, Jenny (Kirsten Hill).
But when the musical begins on the day grown-up Will (Bobby Steggert) gets married to his war correspondent colleague, Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown), it's apparent that a childhood of being separated from his father for months at a time, coupled with his dad's insistence on telling these far-fetch tales in lieu of real conversation, have left the son feeling like he barely knows the man. When Edward is diagnosed with advanced stages of cancer, Will sets out to discover the truth, but there are some things his uncooperative father insists on keeping secret.
Lippa's score is at its most colorful and engaging when expressing the main character's true emotions. "Be The Hero," where he encourages his son to do great things, and "Fight The Dragons," where he explains his passion for always widening his world, are catchy and theatrical gems. The gorgeous "Time Stops," about experiencing eternal love at first sight, is bound to be hitting the piano bars and cabarets any moment now.
But while Lippa's work is consistently well-crafted and pleasant, the score wears thin when it should be at its cleverest, during the many fantasy scenes. August's book has Butz skillfully leaping from reality to fantasy, robust to fragile, young to old and back again - sometimes adding or subtracting decades from his character on stage with simple costume adjustments - but Edward's relationships with his wife and son, which would give the story greater emotional heft, are left underdeveloped, leaving Baldwin and Steggert with functionary roles. Both give fine acting performances and shine brightly with their solos (Baldwin's lovely soprano is nicely showcased in a second act ballad.) but despite noble intentions, the written material of Big Fish, while always charming, never achieves the soaring impact its story deserves.
But Butz and company eagerly play it like the second coming of Oklahoma! while Stroman and her team create a swirl of Americana stage magic within a haunted forest, a traveling circus (with dancing elephants), a Wild West adventure, a patriotic cavalcade, a sparkling river and plenty of good, clean humor.
The dragons don't stand a chance.
Photos by Paul Kolnik: Top: Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz; Bottom: Norbert Leo Butz, Zachary Unger, Sarrah Strimel.