The Story Gets Lost in a Sea of Big-Splash Effects
By: Lauren Yarger
The latest attempt to turn a movie into a Broadway musical has landed a little like a fish out of water.
Big Fish tries to make a big splash with 19 songs by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family), big-number choreography by Director Susan Stroman and amazingly complex sets and costumes (designed by Julian Crouch and William Ivey Long), but all of the over-the-top action drowns out the really good story of a frustrated young man trying to get to know his big-tale-telling father before it’s too late.
Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) and his son, Will (Bobby Steggert), never have had a great relationship. A traveling salesman, Edward wasn’t around much and when he was, he was full of exaggerated stories. No longer a little boy (the young Will’s role is shared by Zachary Unger and Anthony Pierini), Will wants to know the real story about who his dad is.
In Edward’s stories, he always is the hero, saving his hometown from a giant (Ryan Andes), a witch (Ciara Renee) or a bully (Ben Crawford). The most beautiful woman, of course, is Will’s mom, Sandra (Kate Baldwin) — except in one. That one is about Edward’s high school sweetheart, Jenny Hill (Kirsten Scott), whose name shows up for real in a mysterious document.
Will’s new wife, Josephine, (Krystal Joy Brown), announces that they are expecting a son and when Edward’s health starts to deteriorate, Will decides it is time to find the truth about his Dad and Jenny.
All of Edward’s fantastic stories are brought to life in minute detail with a cast of characters, including, among many, many, many many others, a mermaid (Sarrah Strimel), the fortunetelling witch and her backup chorus of twirling swamp creatures), a bunch of cheerleaders, a human canon ball, dancing elephants and even the big fish that got away….
Long gets to use some of his color-changing fabric magic again (see Cinderella, also running on Broadway) with lighting (David Holder, design) and projection enhancement (Benjamin Pearcy for 56 Productions, design) that produce breathtaking effect. It, with the Stroman-signature choreography ( a chorus line of dancing swamp things and a dancing campfire?) eclipses the book by John August, who adapts his screenplay from the 2003 movie starring Robin Williams, which was based on Daniel Wallace’s novel.
Some questions arise in the parts of the story that we do catch like:
In a scene where a kid in the woods discovers a bug in his pants and his companions shine their flashlights on his shoes to coax it out. Don’t bugs usually run from the light?
Jenny says Edward hasn’t returned to their hometown since he left, yet she knows Will’s name
The villagers are afraid of a giant, but the giant is agoraphobic and afraid to come out of his cave so how do they know he’s there?
What are the names of Will’s wife and mother? When I sat down to write this review, I couldn’t remember. I’d lost them somewhere in the avalanche of visual stimulation and cool sound effects (Jon Weston, design).
Good heavens, there is still a second act to come? (This was my thought at about one hour and 15 minutes in when I realized we hadn’t even come to intermission yet in the interminable collection of songs and scene changes.)
Lippa’s twangy tunes are mostly not memorable, with some distracting orchestrations by Larry Hochman, but it is always a treat to hear Baldwin, who has one of the finest voices on Broadway, sing anything on a New York stage. Steggert lends his strong voice to his songs and a solo, "Stranger" is particularly nice.
Big Fish splashes at the Neil Simon Theatre 250 West 52nd St., NYC. For tickets and info: http://www.bigfishthemusical.com/. You can view a sneak peek video there to see some of the action.