BWW Review: BIG FISH, The Other Palace
Based on Daniel Wallace's novel and Tim Burton's 2003 film adaptation, this musical is quite the oddity. Screenwriter John August has tinkered with the book since its brief Broadway run in 2013, but it remains an unfathomable mixture of magical and mawkish, whimsy and desolation.
Travelling salesman Edward Bloom is the kind of good ole Alabama boy brimming with Southern fried charm and always read to spill another tall tale about his heroic adventures.
Strait-laced reporter son Will, who views him more as an absentee parent, just wants to know the truth of the man - and following a bleak medical diagnosis, that quest takes on more urgency.
The big draw of the London production is Frasier himself, AKA Kelsey Grammer. It's undoubtedly a thrill seeing him live on an intimate stage - the charisma, swagger, sonorous voice and elastic facial expressions.
He's clearly having a ball as Daddy Bloom, delivering the freewheeling jokes with panache and negotiating between the man's robust personality and increasing physical frailty. The singing is rather more variable - it's the younger cast members who fare best with Andrew Lippa's score.
But Grammer is the big, er, fish in an overcrowded pond. The heart of the piece, in theory, is parenthood: Edward and Will's prickly relationship, with their respective wives Sandra and Josephine acting as peacemakers; and Josephine's pregnancy forcing Will to examine his own impending role as father.
However, we also have extended time with a young Edward, played by Jamie Muscato, and his mythical scrapes: from the witch who shows him how he'll die to befriending a giant, joining the circus and meeting a mermaid. For great stretches, Grammer disappears altogether.
While the Broadway production was criticised for its reliance on spectacle, Nigel Harman's version is generally effective at showing how imagination transforms the ordinary: whole worlds grow out of a hospital room. Even so, transitions between the two can result in tonal whiplash - and a tantalising suggestion of darkness is swiftly smothered by schmaltz.
As Will, Matthew Seadon-Young has a thankless task - the guy in a musical railing against fantasy - but his superb vocals and grounded performance do much to win our investment. Yet his subplot is frustratingly truncated, and conflicts too easily resolved.
Jamie Muscato is an energetic young Edward, complete with toothy smile and smooth moves, nicely anchoring choreographer Liam Steel's big set-piece production numbers - including literal jumping through hoops on the path to winning Sandra's heart.
Dean Nolan is a real asset to those flashback sections, bringing soul to Karl the thoughtful giant, but Forbes Masson is in full-on panto mode as a series of outlandish antagonists - engaging, but increasingly hard to reconcile with the sentimental main plot.
The women (and I'm so sick of writing this) are given little to do beyond being courted by or supporting their men. As the older Sandra, Clare Burt has one good number expressing her fears; her younger counterpart, Laura Baldwin, charms when given the opportunity, but has a fraction of Muscato's stage time.
As Josephine, Frances McNamee has nice understated chemistry with Seadon-Young, and a delicate duet with Burt about motherhood - the latter hinting at a very different show, one with real emotional texture. Landi Oshinowo probably fares best in the dual roles of a fearsome witch and the woman holding the key to Edward's past.
Lippa's numbers are frequently delightful, whether bluegrass, hoedown or big ballads (the latter includes one of the best gags of the evening, as a character prepares to hold forth while another is busting for a wee). But they lack story momentum, the lyrics are over-literal, and there are some predictable choices - see: yet another wartime Andrews Sisters pastiche.
Tom Rogers' design is crisp and efficient, with vivid colour-coordinated costumes for different sections of the past juxtaposed with the clinical hospital. Projections from Duncan McLean are sometimes fun - I particularly liked the kids' torches illuminating sections of the woods as they search for the witch at night - but sometimes too bland, undercutting this smaller-scale production's emphasis on inventiveness.
There's plenty of disparate elements here to hook an audience, not least the star power of Grammer, but this curious combination may not reel them in.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton