Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 6, 2013
Big Fish Book by John August. Music & lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Based on the novel Big Fish by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia Pictures film screenplay by John August. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Music direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Scenic design by Julian Crouch. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Jon Weston. Projection design by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. Wig and hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, Bobby Steggert, Krystal Joy Brown, Anthony Pierini, Zachary Unger, Ryan Andes, Ben Crawford, Brad Oscar, with JC Montgomery, Ciara Renée, Kirsten Scott, Sarrah Strimel, Preston Truman Boyd, Bree Branker, Alex Brightman, Joshua Buscher, Robin Campbell, Bryn Dowling, Jason Lee Garrett, Leah Hofmann, Synthia Link, Angie Schworer, Lara Seibert, Tally Sessions, Cary Tedder, Ashley Yeater.
But the show, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, deserves credit for getting one half of the equation right. Based on Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel and its 2003 film adaptation, Big Fish requires a look and a personality all its own. After all, its central figure, Edward Bloom, has literally built his life on telling tall tales about creatures such as giants and witches and werewolves and miraculous happenings set everywhere from a haunted forest to a war zone to a drowning valley. A clear demarcation between fact and fiction will help us believe in and care about the quest of Edward's son, Will, as he struggles to separate them once and for all while the old man is on his deathbed.
Scenic designer Julian Crouch leads the charge with a straightforward but detailed set that shifts effortlessly between the mundane and the magical, as naturally giving way to a spooky forest, a Technicolor USO spectacle, or an infinite vista of daffodils as it does a bedroom, a doctor's office, or Central Park at night. All of this is aggressively but smartly lit by Donald Holder, whose ability to make shadows look like flesh-and-blood beings and water sparkle like the star-filled sky are fitting embodiments of Edward's irrepressible spirit. And costume designer William Ivey Long has a huge amount of fun with his sprawling, rags-and-riches plot that never leaves you wondering whether you're inside or outside of Edward’s head.
The projections by Benjamin Pearcy seem most responsible for injecting the unexpected. Through them you'll watch a cackling hag marshal her dark sorcery against Edward as he dodges terrifying living trees, and that rapidly rising tide swallowing a small town in a single gurgle. Complain, if you will, that Stroman didn't conjure non-digital solutions — it's not hard to suspect that another, more visionary director (Julie Taymor?) might have managed it — but the effect does exactly what it needs to: transport you.
The rest of the show, however, has more trouble. Though librettist John August has hewn closely to his 2003 screenplay and Andrew Lippa has written his overall finest theatre score to date, the end result just doesn’t matter much. This is ultimately because, time and time again, Big Fish loses track of the people it’s supposed to be about.
Nor is Sandra, Edward’s wife and Will’s mother, robustly enough drawn. Though she’s given a fair amount of stage time for a third lead, and is compellingly performed (and beautifully sung) by Kate Baldwin, she comes across as an eternal afterthought. You don’t see, as you ought to, how she serves as the ostensible link between the dueling men in her life, or even what about her provoked in Edward the intense feelings of love for her that led him to pursue her for years and even spurn the affections of the nice, pretty hometown girl he knew from high school and helps out — and could easily have — as an adult.
The rest of the supporting menagerie is much the same. Whether the towering giant Karl (Ryan Andes), that fearsome witch (Ciara Renée), a mermaid who teaches Edward about love (Sarrah Strimel), the girl who got away and almost came back (Kirsten Scott), or the mischievous but well-meaning werewolf who masquerades as the circus ringmaster (Brad Oscar, the liveliest of the bunch), those Edward invokes to surround him are a sedate, non-glittery group you’re never convinced could inspire wonder in either Edward or Will as an adult or a child (the acceptable Zachary Unger, spelled by Anthony Pierini at matinees).
Compared to many of his compositions (particularly those for his last, should-have-been-whimsical Broadway outing, The Addams Family), Lippa’s songs here all float and many genuinely charm. The best are Sandra’s quietly adoring “I Don’t Need a Roof” and Edward’s bookending numbers, “Be the Hero” (when Will’s journey is just starting) and “How It Ends” (when it’s reaching its end), but even the load-bearing songs in between are tinted with a simmering sense of adventure (heightened by Larry Hochman’s playful orchestrations and Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s zesty musical direction) that keep the true point always in sight.
Alas, the three most important people don’t. Though I’ve long admired Norbert Leo Butz, he’s astonishingly miscast as Edward: The raw, accidental-seeming energy that propelled him to Tony Awards for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can is in full evidence here, but stops him from evincing either the necessary father-like authority or even the notion that he buys a single word he’s saying. Though likable throughout, he seems only to be playing — and for Edward, fantasy needs to be serious business. As Will, Bobby Steggert is hamstrung by a thankless, underwritten role, but does nothing to elevate it, let alone project that the young man cares at all about learning the truth about his father.
The sheer number of problems of this type suggests directorial missteps, and indeed, Stroman’s work — when separated from the visuals — fails to soar. Her choreography is among her most perfunctory yet, and invariably feels shoehorned into too-static proceedings, but the gauze through which she forces you to view everything is much more damaging. Having made her name and career on stellar projects of dubious emotional engagement (Crazy for You, And the World Goes ‘Round, The Producers) but faltered when things got more serious (Thou Shalt Not, The Scottsboro Boys), it’s easy to see why Stroman could both appear ideal for a project like this and stumble in bringing it to life.
Throughout the musical’s easily endurable two-and-a-half-hour running time, there’s no doubt that Stroman, August, and Lippa have worked incredibly hard to get their components to ignite. That goodwill, and the obvious undergirding talent, goes a long way — even to the legitimately tear-jerking finale. Still, I found myself caring much less about whether Edward and Will would reconcile than I did about whether The Producers’ Bialystock and Bloom would get away with their supercharged Broadway scam. That shouldn’t be, but remember that that hit had the unifying force it needed in Mel Brooks. There’s no equivalent here. What a shame that what Big Fish most needs is a hook.