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Big Fish (10/06/2013 - 12/29/2013)


AP: "Hyperkinetic 'Big Fish' Emerges With Heart"

Sometimes a musical gets you with the first kiss or a nifty bit of dance. "Big Fish" might be the first to do it with elephant butts.

The sight of three swaying caps a tumultuous first act that throws everything at you — acrobats, a montage, smoke, leaping fish, mermaids, werewolves and a ruthless cheerfulness — so by the time the simple view of puppet pachyderm rear ends appear, cheers come naturally from the audience.

Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, "Big Fish" is a hyperkinetic, messy spectacle that really only finds its footing in a cleaner second act, finally emerging with real heart and style.

The musical that opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre is adapted from the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel and the 2003 Tim Burton movie. The book is by John August, who also penned the movie's screenplay.

Norbert Leo Butz is perfectly cast as a manic father fond of tall tales about witches and giants, but who harbors a secret. Bobby Steggert is great as his exasperated son, tired of all the silliness. And Kate Baldwin is lovely as the woman trying to reconcile these two men before it's too late.

While acknowledging that the show is about a self-consciously rambling and absurdist hero, the bloated 90-minute Act 1 threatens to derail as visual gags, projections and busy scenes — plus a book that uneasily mixes whimsy and cancer — bombard the senses.

"People want to see things beyond their imagination! Bigger than life!" says a circus ringmaster. It's advice that Stroman clearly has embraced, for better or worse. The ante keeps getting upped with each scene and it gets exhausting.

Some jaw-dropping stuff is indeed on show: There's a stunning dance scene in which Benjamin Pearcy's projections are broadcast on William Ivey Long's sumptuous cloaks. There's a fun moment between Butz and a giant — an excellent Ryan Andes, channeling Monty Python — who have a good song called "Out There on the Road."

And the act ends with daffodils sprouting from every corner of the stage, a beautiful tour de force from set designer Julian Crouch that would be enough to end most musicals on a high.

After intermission, a big, bombastic song — "Red, White and True," complete with nine dancing USO girls whose bodies spell out "U S A" — proves no one wants to take their foot off the gas. It could easily be the 11 o'clock number in any other musical.

Then, finally, many of the toys are put away — wisely. "Fight the Dragon" is beautifully sung in a simple bedroom set, and Baldwin's torch song "I Don't Need a Roof" is a shimmering gorgeous thing, with her just cradling her ill husband, teary proof of her acting and singing chops. Both songs bring the show back to gravity in an emotional, beautiful way.

Even so, there are still unnecessary flourishes. One Act 2 song, "Showdown," a TV cowboy-infused battle between father and son is simply unneeded, especially since there's no call for a "hanging tonight" on top of fatal cancer.

Lippa, who also wrote the songs for "The Addams Family," has a knack for a classic, catchy Broadway sound, though many tunes come off as attempts for a hit-for-the-stands homer.

Stroman keeps the action flowing flawlessly — and her actors moving through an impossibly complicated world — and clearly knows when to let the beauty of the moment simply shine. She captures the magic of the original story and has created some undeniable magic of her own.

Butz proves he's simply in a league of his own, able to switch from middle-aged to teenager in a snap, offering a complex portrait of a Southern man while avoiding good 'ol boy cliches, and he even spends some of the night lying in a hospital bed, not the most expected way to lead a musical. But then there are lots of other fun surprises at "Big Fish," including elephant fannies.


New York Daily News: "Big Fish"

Broadway’s new musical fable, “Big Fish,” is a singing version of catch-and-release. It hooks you, then loses you — all night.

Fortunately, this show about fathers and sons and forgiveness has a saving grace in leading man Norbert Leo Butz.

The “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me If You Can” Tony winner is at his lovable and elastic-legged best as Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who lived to tell tall tales.

But Edward is dying.

His long-suffering son, Will (Bobby Steggert) wants to know his absentee dad beyond fishy yarns of witches and giants. As Will digs into the past, Edward’s fantasies bleed into real life in a series of fairy tale-style vignettes. It’s “Death of a Salesman” meets “Into the Woods.”

Songs by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family”) are pleasant. The tender “Time Stops” stands out. But the whole score would benefit from lyrics less Hallmark-cliché and more personal. The boyish Steggert gets the most nuanced song, “Stranger,” about his unborn son and unknown dad.

The book by John August, who wrote the 2003 screenplay based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, has funny moments. Curious ones, too — like when a mermaid hands Will’s wife a necklace. Huh? The mermaid’s not real. And while Kate Baldwin is lovely as Edward’s devoted wife, so much focus on her detracts from the father-son story.

Both creators fail to mine a poignant vein. Edward is a fabulist. Will is a reporter. Both are storytellers, and that’s a deep connection, but totally overlooked.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) wraps the show up in a splashy production that glides from circus to enchanted forest to war zone to a brilliant field of daffodils. Nice work by set designer Julian Crouch and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy.

Stroman’s dances — tap, waltz, hoedowns — are polished but a bit pedestrian. She’s famous for wild imagination, but she serves her “Big Fish” without a showstopper. Lucky for us, she managed to reel in a winner by casting Butz.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Hack score undermines Broadway version of 'Big Fish'"

There’s a huge gap between what you see and what you hear in “Big Fish.” Visually speaking, this new Broadway musical is inventive, playful and often downright magical. But then, we expect nothing less from director Susan Stroman, the whiz behind “The Producers” and “The Scottsboro Boys.”

Unfortunately, Andrew Lippa’s score is a hack job stringing one banal non-tune after another. Every time Broadway takes one step forward musically (“Matilda,” “Once”), it takes two back with safe, witless junk like this. Those who heard Lippa’s disposable contribution to “The Addams Family” can’t say they weren’t warned.

That the score would be the show’s downfall is surprising considering the daunting staging challenges: The fantastical source material — Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 movie adaptation — features giants, witches and werewolves.

But Stroman rises to the occasion and illustrates the prodigious imagination of her hero, Edward Bloom, by skillfully weaving together Benjamin Pearcy’s fancy projections, clever sets by Julian Crouch (“The Addams Family,” “Shockheaded Peter”) and good old-fashioned razzle-dazzle.

Two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz (“Catch Me If You Can,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) exerts himself tirelessly as Edward, a traveling salesman whose outlandish fabrications annoy his pragmatic son, Will (played by Bobby Steggert as an adult and Zachary Unger as a child).

“Be the hero of your own story,” Edward instructs his offspring before launching into yet another extravagant tall tale.

For the younger man, this just makes Dad an unreliable egomaniac who insists on being the center of attention.

“I don’t know when I’ll understand what made him wild,” Will sings in one of several dull ballads. “I don’t know when I’ll understand what made him fly.”

Flying as a metaphor for freedom? How novel.

Meanwhile, Lippa rarely reflects the show’s Southern setting. He’s at his tepid best with a couple of decent novelty numbers: the vocal trio “Little Lamb from Alabama” and “Red, White and True,” a big-band-style extravaganza that backs Stroman’s most fun choreography of the evening.

John August’s book (he also wrote the film’s screenplay) takes us from one set piece to another fairly efficiently, and some cast members transcend their fanciful get-ups to create appealing characters: Ryan Andes and the ever-reliable Brad Oscar (“The Producers”) provide key support as the giant and a circus ringmaster, respectively. Sadly, Kate Baldwin and Krystal Joy Brown are given little to do beside stand steadfastly by their spouses, Edward and Will.

Then again, the big theme of “Big Fish” is the bond between father and son, as Will gradually discovers the true extent of his dad’s generosity.

Too bad this journey concludes with yet another saccharine number plagued by an overabundance of chimes. “It ends with faith/It ends with love,” Edward sings. “It ends with water in the river and the sun above.”

No fish, big or small, would bite on that lure.

New York Post

New York Times: "A Dad's Tall Tales and a Down-to-Earth Son"

For a show that celebrates tall tales, “Big Fish” feels curiously stunted. Granted, this movie-inspired musical about a whopper-spinning traveling salesman, which opened on Sunday night at the Neil Simon Theater, is certainly big by most conventional measurements.

It has a big cast, a big orchestra, a host of hyperventilating big production numbers and a cornucopia of wild-and-crazy centerpieces, with really big special effects. It is also endowed with big talents, including the director and choreographer Susan Stroman (“Contact,” “The Producers”) and the actor Norbert Leo Butz (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), who tend to attract Tony Award nominations the way cashmere draws moths. Add to this the considerable gifts of the fast-rising Broadway star Bobby Steggert and the endlessly resourceful set designer Julian Crouch, and you would seem to have the makings of a musical giant.

Yet “Big Fish,” which has been carefully designed to grow on you as it piles up its excesses, perversely starts shrinking almost from the beginning. While this process might baffle endocrinologists, lovers of liars of all stripes will understand what’s gone wrong. For outlandish stories to seduce, you should never be able to separate the teller from the tale.

“Big Fish” fails to forge the crucial connection between its characters and their fantasies. Featuring songs by Andrew Lippa and a book by John August, this musical is about one of those impossible, wonderful, embarrassing fathers whose ghosts have done so much to keep psychiatrists in business. Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and the 2003 film by Tim Burton (with a screenplay by Mr. August), this is a story that presents father as fantasist, and its tone brings to mind best-selling sentimental filial memoirs — à la Tim Russert and Geoffrey Wolff — crossed with “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”

The dad of “Big Fish” is Edward Bloom, and he is played by the wonderful but, in this case, stymied Mr. Butz. (By the way, if you think there might be a pun waiting to explode in Edward’s last name, you’re already ahead of the game.) Edward is a life-of-the-party Alabama boy still twinkling in the twilight of his life, which (this is not a spoiler) is destined to end soon. Age cannot stale his enthusiasm for retelling the same improbable accounts of his youth or his hunger for the spotlight.

Such egocentricity particularly vexes Will (Mr. Steggert) — the only child of Edward and the doting Sandra (Kate Baldwin) — on the eve of his wedding. What if Edward somehow manages to make the event all about Edward, as per usual, further damaging an already strained father-son relationship?

Will’s fiancée (and later wife), Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown), and mother do their best to make the boys make nice, for all the usual reasons found in self-help books. (You have so little time on this planet; you can’t understand yourself until you understand what you come from; etc.) But reconciliation isn’t easy when figures from Edward’s shaggy-dog past keep coming to life and hijacking the stage like the tireless playthings from “Toy Story.”

You will meet these fantastical creatures long before Edward has the chance to tell you about them. A witch, a mermaid, a giant, circus performers and garden-variety pirouetting small-town citizens so popular in musicals past — all these materialize in the show’s prologue, rather as the acrobatic corps de ballet does in Diane Paulus’s current revival of “Pippin.” They, too, exude the implicit promise that they’ve “got magic to do.”

And magic there is, or at least a whole lot of spectacular eye candy: scary forests with dancing trees, circus tents in which time stands still when boy meets girl, a Wild West nightmare, wallpaper that turns into a fish-filled river, an ever-expanding field of daffodils and, oh yeah, the piscine marvel of the title. (In addition to sets by Mr. Crouch, the wizard behind the look of the great Grand Guignol “Shockheaded Peter,” the show has top-of-the-line lighting by Donald Holder, costumes by the tireless William Ivey Long and fluid projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions.)

The problem is that you feel these colorful visions are being thrust not just upon the audience but also upon Edward. It’s as if the contents of an immense toy chest had been emptied on top of him, when you need to believe that it’s his imagination that summons these gaudy phantoms into existence. Yes, there’s plenty of theatrical cleverness in how these ingredients are arranged. But it’s as if some cosmic Florenz Ziegfeld is the one doing the arranging, not an Everyman Walter Mitty from Dixie.

Don’t blame Mr. Butz, who is as good as anyone around at building complete characters in musicals. Playing Edward at various ages (in Mr. Burton’s movie Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney divided the role), Mr. Butz is forced to coast on his charm, while scenery happens around him, bringing to mind an affable Disney World guide who has discovered he is not the main attraction.

He’s a fine instinctive, athletic dancer, in the tradition of James Cagney, and I felt a real, rare frisson whenever Edward was allowed to cut loose physically to enact his fables of derring-do. But the songs by Mr. Lippa (“The Addams Family”) don’t give Mr. Butz much to work with vocally or emotionally. A combination of country-and-western strings and Broadway brass, their melodies evoke cowboy-TV-show theme music of the early 1960s, with lyrics by Hallmark.

Mr. Steggert’s singing exudes a radiant sincerity that transcends corn, and Ms. Baldwin brings a good-old-girl grit to the woman who stands by her man, no matter what. The cast also includes Brad Oscar as a werewolf circus manager, and the appealing Zachary Unger as Young Will, who was evidently just as much a humorless prig as a child as he is as a grown-up. (Anthony Pierini plays the role in the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.)

I’d say that Will exists basically to be a straight man to Edward, except that everyone here — including Edward — turns out to be a straight man to Ms. Stroman’s production. As she demonstrated in “The Producers,” she is fluent in all styles of theatrical dance, and in “Contact” she showed a lovely gift for finding character through choreography.

Here, though, she seems to be drawing almost randomly from her bottomless bag of tricks. Yes, her use of dancers to embody an enchanted forest and a campfire is delightful. And it’s hard not to chuckle when those two-stepping elephants make a cameo appearance. But if the show is all about the need for personal myths, it has to let its leading mythmaker take charge.

Not once did I feel that what I was seeing had been spawned by the teeming mind of Edward Bloom. The show’s de facto theme song may advocate “be the hero” of your own life, but somehow “Big Fish” turns everyone into a local-color extra.

New York Times

Newsday: "'Big Fish' review: Ambitious musical, not exciting"

There is something so joyous -- inspirational, even -- about Norbert Leo Butz. The triple-threat actor with the two Tonys and the perversely anti-charismatic name has an exuberance that never feels even slightly dishonest and an intelligence that refuses to condescend to his most outrageous characters.

And here he is again, taking a chance with original material instead of hanging back with greatest-hits Broadway. In other words, it's a pleasure to watch him engage in the fantastical adventures of both the healthy and the dying Edward Bloom, irrepressible teller of tall stories and bad jokes in "Big Fish."

In fact, there are many pleasures in this ambitious but disappointing adaptation of Daniel Wallace's Walter Mitty-esque novel and Tim Burton's 2003 movie about a father,s inability to make a truthful connection with his serious son.

The cast is enormously appealing. Susan Stroman's sure-handed, imaginative direction and big, strapping choreography zip us through the small-town salesman's epic imaginings of witches and Alabama swamps, mermaids in the river and giants in a cave, not to mention cowboys and circuses and floods. And the scenery by master illusionist Julian Crouch ("Shockheaded Peter") finds astonishing magic from little more than colored lights and projections on wooden planks and fabric.

So it's crushing to realize, early on, that this gentle, sincere, beautiful-looking show is deadly dull. Author John August, who also wrote the screenplay, strings sentimentality and hackneyed picaresque escapades together as if they were equivalent balls on a string. Tension never builds, even when Edward's son Will (Bobby Steggert) tries to unravel the father's secret life.

The music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa ("The Addams Family," "The Wild Party") are old-time Broadway throwbacks -- melodic and serviceable genre songs that seldom support the individuality of the characters with original voices. Kate Baldwin, excellent as Edward's lyrical, loving wife, does have a heart-tugging ballad, "I Don't Need a Roof," as her husband is dying of cancer. Even then, however, we can finish the obvious rhymes before she does.

William Ivey Long's costumes have more wit than the book and score. Stroman, always a wizard with props, can make rubber fish leap out of the river whenever anyone does a special stomping, slapping dance. And we are grateful, yet again, for her preference for healthy women dancers instead of dainty chorines.

But Edward's message is that we should all make ourselves the heroes of our stories. Too subtle to be a family show and too toothless for grown-ups, this story could use a hero all its own.


USA Today: "'Big Fish' won't quite reel you in"

"I would hate to see the rainbows in your world," a father tells his son in the new Broadway musical Big Fish (* * 1/2 out of four stars). "Bet they're all shades of gray."

The speaker is one Edward Bloom, traveling salesman and spinner of tall, usually self-aggrandizing tales; and the show -- an adaptation of the novel by Daniel Wallace, and the 2003 Tim Burton film that book inspired -- is, technically, bursting with the sort of bright, bold colors that old Ed would surely favor.

Donald Holder's vivid lighting is matched in Benjamin Pearcy's (for 59 Productions) animated projection design and Julian Crouch's whimsical scenery. When Edward proposes to his future wife, Sandra, hundreds of yellow daffodils sparkle against a clear blue sky.

Somehow, though, the effect isn't as dazzling, or as moving, as you would hope -- particularly given the talented players involved in this production, which opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre.

They include two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, who as Edward ages from a spry teenager to an expectant grandfather dying of cancer. As Sandra, Kate Baldwin, one of musical theater's most graceful leading ladies, grows old -- and springs back to youth -- with her spouse, much as she did playing another resilient wife in the Public Theater's splendid staging of Giant, another musical based on a book that became a film, last year.

But Big Fish doesn't afford its stars the same depth or, more crucially, consistency of tone. Librettist John August wrote the screenplay for the Burton movie, which also shifts back and forth in time as we watch Will, Edward's son, try to come to terms with a father he resents and doesn't trust, before Edward dies and Will's own child is born.

On stage, August and director/choreographer Susan Stroman show us Will, as both a child and a young adult, reacting to Edward's fanciful accounts, while Edward himself steps into and out of memory sequences, at one point dropping 40 years by simply shaking off his robe and donning a baseball cap.

But much of the dialogue feels stilted, as if August were trying too hard to get into the song-and-dance spirit of his new medium. There are more hokey one-liners and sober declarations than there were in the film. That disjointed vibe extends to composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa's score, which juggles earnest ballads with generically jaunty production numbers.

Edward's stories do accommodate flashes of Stroman's playful wit. In one scene, characters from a Western flick strut out of a TV set; in another, Edward, as a young solider, heroically chases the enemy through lines of tap-dancing chorines. Too often, though, the choreography seems more busy than vibrant, with ensemble members spinning around creatures ranging from a sultry witch (an overbearing Ciara Renee) to a friendly giant (a resonant-voiced Ryan Andes).

Butz, Baldwin and Bobby Steggert, as the grownup Will, all bring a sense of genuine humanity to their roles. In the end, though, this Big Fish lacks the imagination or cohesion to reel you in like one of its hero's yarns.

USA Today

Variety: "Big Fish"

Norbert Leo Butz is cutting loose in another one of his don’t-dare-miss-this perfs in “Big Fish,” a show that speaks to anyone pining for a studiously heart-warming musical about the efforts of a dying man to justify a lifetime of lousy parenting to his alienated son. Should the feel-good message underwhelm Bway auds, regional prospects still look solid for helmer-choreographer Susan Stroman’s imaginative production of the show, which features an easy-listenin’ score by Andrew Lippa and a not-too-sappy book by John August, adapted from his screenplay for the Tim Burton movie, itself based on the best-selling novel by Daniel Wallace.

Edward Bloom is a close relation to those problematical characters that Butz played so brilliantly in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me If You Can,” the kind of morally flawed person who needs beaucoup help from a sympathetic thesp to win over an audience. Butz gives it all he’s got — a con man’s charm, an honest man’s earnestness, and his own touching faith in the character’s essential goodness — convincing us to root for an ego-centric narcissist who has made his life into a fairytale drama.

Like a lesser-scaled Willy Loman, Edward is a traveling salesman who neglects his familial duties to his wife, Sandra (Kate Baldwin), and son, Will (Bobby Steggert), back home in Alabama. Both characters are seriously underdrawn and neither thesp does much with them, except in those songs that momentarily transform them into human beings.

Baldwin gets her big moment with “I Don’t Need a Roof,” the heartbreaking goodbye that Sandra sings to her husband on his deathbed. For Steggert, it’s “What’s Next,” Will’s embrace of his dying father’s cockeyed philosophy of life. Both thesps stand and deliver when given the chance, but make no mistake about it — this is Edward’s story and Butz’s show.

Every man wants to be a hero to his son. Edward needs to be a hero to himself. Hence, the tall tales and elaborate daydreams he spins to convince himself that there is meaning and purpose to his ordinary life. His theme song, “Be a Hero,” says it all, with its lyric promises of “anything you desire, anything on a plate.” But if you can resist Butz’s robust delivery, the substance of the song is actually kind of creepy — a ringing affirmation of that all-American, character-undermining fantasy that you can be anyone and have anything you desire, just by wishing and wanting it so.

Shabby values aside, the show has its enchantments. These are largely the gifts of helmer-choreographer-magician Stroman, who brings genuine wit to her technically ingenious stagecraft.

Edward’s flights of imagination begin on the nursery level with visions of fairytale witches and giants and ogres. Without missing a beat, they move on to puberty dreams of cowboys and circuses and mermaids and werewolves, and make it all the way to a young lad’s fantasies about cheerleaders and tap-dancing USO girls.

Resisting the usual Broadway tendency toward over-production, this show is perfectly scaled to the modest level of Edward’s boyish daydreams.

Invention, not excess, seems to be the dominant house rule, from the tight choreography, which is quick and clever and never over the top, to the primary-color projections by Benjamin Pearcy that make a comic-book universe of Julian Crouch’s sets. William Ivey Long captures the playful vibe with ingenious costumes that move in unexpected ways (like the fishtail of a mermaid’s silvery costume) and contribute their own magic to the storytelling (like the witches that materialize from the trees in a forest).

The main thing missing from this show — and might have taken the edge off its unlikable hero and unpalatable message — is the mystical sensibility that flavors Southern storytelling. Although supposedly set in Alabama, there’s not a hint here, musical or otherwise, of the traditional magic found in regional folktales. The kind of magic that might transform a selfish character like Edward Bloom into the hero of his own dreams.


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