By: David Sheward
Big Fish is an example of what I like to call benefit-of-the-doubt shows. These contain problems with the structure and storyline, but often have enough pizzazz and heart to merit a critical pass. In Big Fish’s case, the episodic, underdeveloped book by John August (based on Daniel Wallace’s novel and August’s screenplay for the 2003 Tim Burton-directed film version) is more than compensated for by the reliable Susan Stroman’s joyful and inventive staging and an amazing lead performance by Norbert Leo Butz. Along with a handful of others like Nathan Lane, Butz is fast becoming the kind of Broadway star who is little known outside the theater but who can transform an iffy proposition into a fun evening.
He first burst into the ranks of musical leading men in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a charming con man, and he’s playing the same kind of lovable narcissist here. Edward Bloom is a Southern good-ol’-boy traveling salesman-though what he sells is never specified-who constantly grabs the spotlight by spinning fantastic tales populated with witches, mermaids, giants, and werewolves. He’s enchanting and entertaining, but Edward’s loose relationship with the truth causes a rift with his straitlaced son Will, a just-the-facts journalist about to become a father.
The arc of August’s book is Will’s quest to find the truth behind Edward’s fanciful stories when Edward is diagnosed with cancer. August fails to provide a strong enough reason for Will’s motivation; there’s a mysterious deed found among the family papers, but it’s not a powerful enough McGuffin to get us to care about it. Besides, Will must be a pretty poor reporter if he can’t ferret out the basic biographical facts about his own dad. Perhaps the show is set in the era before the Internet. As a result of the flimsy central plot, the evening becomes a series of loosely connected set pieces illustrating Edward’s exaggerated exploits. Fortunately, Stroman, one of Broadway’s most imaginative director-choreographers, executes them with her trademark flair. She’s backed up by Julian Crouch’s delightfully cartoonish sets, William Ivey Long’s spiffy costumes, and poetic projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. The most startling bit of staging is the simplest: a dancer with a flame-colored skirt in one of Edward’s fantasies becomes the campfire for a Boy Scout sleepover. The show is full of smart, gasp-inducing moments like that.
Andrew Lippa’s tuneful score is another asset. Though his lyrics are a bit simplistic, the music is rich and sweet, staying with the audience long after the curtain falls. "Time Stops," a ravishingly beautiful duet between the young Edward and Sandra, his future wife, is particularly memorable.
But the biggest fish in this pond is Butz, who splashes and swims with grace, confidence, and charisma. Even when Edward is being a jerk, as when he steals attention at his son’s wedding, Butz manages to show this man’s joy for life and generous spirit. Bobby Steggert as Will and Kate Baldwin as Sandra have exquisite voices and do what they can with their underdrawn roles, as does the rest of the cast, but all are minnows in comparisons to Butz’s smiling, lovable catfish.
Opened Oct. 6 for an open run. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $76-142. (877) 250-2929. www.ticketmaster.com
Photo: Paul Kolnick