December 14, 2013

"Big Fish" Should Have Made a Bigger Splash

Sometimes a show can have everything going for it and still flop. That’s certainly the case with Big Fish, the big splashy musical written by Andrew Lippa, directed by Susan Stroman and starring a powerhouse cast lead by Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert.  For it's now scheduled to close on Dec. 29 after what will be barely 100 performances.

Like most new musicals nowadays, Big Fish is based on a movie. The 2003 film version of this quirky story about the uneasy relationship between Edward Bloom, a father given to telling tall tales, and his son Will, who just wants an honest connection with his dad, didn’t do well at the box office. But it was a pet project of Tim Burton, the director who is revered enough by the high-art crowd that The Museum of Modern Art did a retrospective on his career, so it carries a kind of cool cachet. 
And although, unlike me, my sister Joanne had liked the film, its true target audience was the guys who cry at father-son movies like “Field of Dreams” (and even the Luke, I'm your father” scene in “The Empire Strikes Back”) and who Broadway is always angling to get into its theater seats. 

Of course, what excited the people who already love musicals were all those talented folks who signed on to make the show. But there may have been signals all along that Big Fish wouldn’t add up to the sum of its much-touted parts.  
As so often happens, much of the blame for the show’s failure has been heaped on its book writer John August, a Broadway newcomer who adapted the 1998 novel of the same name for the movie but wasn’t able to translate the story for the stage (click here to read a piece about his struggle to do it).   

Big Fish spins a complicated tale and because August's book didn't find a way to tell it simply, it probably lost a lot of the audience or bored them with far too much exposition.

But the more experienced stage vets stumbled too. Lippa has been a favorite son among musicals lovers since his version of The Wild Party, the Jazz-Age love-gone-wrong story that played at Manhattan Theatre Club back in 2000 and won both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. Yet the only other Lippa show to make it to New York between that one and this one is The Addams Family, which had a lame score and was only kept alive by the presence of Nathan Lane.   

And except for a ballad or two, the music for Big Fish isn’t much more distinctive. A shaky book and so-so music put a lot of burden on the stagecraft. And Stroman would seem to be the woman for the job.  

Stroman is, of course, the director behind Lane’s biggest success, The Producers.  She’s also a wonderfully imaginative choreographer and so the idea of setting her loose to concoct onstage versions of the wild stories that Edward tells must have seemed inspired. And, at moments, it is. 

Always resourceful, Stroman uses everything from circus techniques to magical sleight of hand to animate the giants, mermaids and other fanciful creatures who populate Edward’s stories. And she's recruited equally creative accomplices.

William Ivey Long’s costumes are, as usual, a delight and are equaled by the whimsical sets by Julian Crouch and video projections by Benjamin Pearcy, all perfectly illuminated by Donald Holder’s lighting.
But after a while, Stroman’s numbers become just one set piece following another, with each straining to top the “look-at-me” quality of the ones that came before it.

The cast members also work hard, using all their skills to flesh out the thinly drawn characters they’ve been given to play. I’m on record as saying that there is nothing that Butz can’t do and he delivers another charismatic performance. I got particular pleasure from watching him dance. If they ever do the Jimmy Cagney story, he should be a shoo-in for the role. 
I’ve usually been cooler towards Baldwin but she’s totally winning as a wife who is fully aware of her husband’s foibles but charmed by them nonetheless. Plus, as usual, Baldwin sings beautifully.  And Steggert, who is another favorite of mine, is also in strong singing voice, even though his spoken dialog gives him little to do but whine.

Their efforts aren't enough to make this show a winner but there’s still a lot to like about Big Fish.  In fact, it would make a great holiday treat for the family to see together and, because it isn’t a hit, you can probably find discount seats.

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