New York – Despite considerable pleasures, Big Fish is a small disappointment.
As a huge fan of Tim Burton's fantastical 2003 film about a tall-tale-weaving father and his skeptical son, I must admit I had high expectations as I walked into the final preview Saturday of this highly anticipated new Broadway musical.
Big Fish, which opened Sunday at New York's Neil Simon Theatre, is an ambitious and laudable effort to create a homegrown American musical about deeply American themes of love, loss, family, faith and fancy.
New York – Despite considerable pleasures, Big Fishranks asa small disappointment.
As a huge fan of Tim Burtonís fantastical 2003 film about a tall-tale-weaving father and his skeptical son, I must admit I had high expectations as I walked into the final preview Saturday of this highly anticipated new Broadway musical.
Big Fish, which opened Sunday at New Yorkís Neil Simon Theatre, is an ambitious and laudable effort to create a homegrown American musical about deeply American themes of love, loss, family, faith and fancy.
Norbert Leo Butz, front, and Ciara Renee in Big Fish at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Paul Kolnik)
One has to respect its very real achievements even when composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa, author-screenwriter John August (Frankenweenie, Corpse Bride) and choreographer-director Susan Stroman fall short in their efforts to fulfill its rich potential.
Especially since a good bit of this epic two-act fantasia works pretty well, from Stromanís fertile staging to the powerhouse central performance of Norbert Leo Butz as the father Edward Bloom.
Even when he seems a braggard or a wild dreamspinner, Butzís Bloom retains the audienceís sympathy as a very human man with a big heart.
Norbert Leo Butz, left, and Ryan Andes as Karl the giant during the first act of Big Fish on Broadway (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Paul Kolnik)
A two-time Tony winner (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can), Butz s bound to be nominated again next spring for his emotionally compelling and often-showy turn as a small-town Southern father and husband who canít help weaving folksy myths around his life – stories that he constantly tells Young Will (Zachary Ungar, alternating with Anthony Pierini at Wednesday and Saturday matinees) as he grows up.
Even when full-grown and on the verge of marriage, Will Bloom (Bobby Steggert, often wasted in a one-dimensional role) simply canít bring himself to believe his father – about almost anything – because his Dadís Paul-Bunyan-scaled tales are so far-fetched.
Those not familiar with the Burton film or the David Wallace novel that August adapted for the film and this musical probably wonít be surprised that the story builds to a very emotional conclusion in which the son finally reconciles with his ailing father.
How itís done, though, is the key.
One major limiting factor here is the serviceable but largely unmemorable score by Lippa (The Addams Family, The Wild Party.)
A few numbers are tuneful enough to have an impact – most notably, Be the Hero, a jaunty aspirational anthem good enough to be reprised in the finale, and I Donít Need a Roof, a love song tenderly delivered by Kate Baldwin in the underwritten role of Sandra, Edwardís patient wife.
At least at first hearing, though, there arenít any songs powerful enough to linger in the mind or hum afterwards – to me, one of the basic requirements of a truly great musical.
Kate Baldwin, left,sings I Don't Need a Roof, with Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish, at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Paul Kolnik)
Stroman (Contact, The Producers) is a pro who does her usual good job in weaving a fluid tapestry of fact and fancy peppered with whimsy.
Yet, I expect more from a Stroman show. I expect at least a few moments of astonishment and thrilling theatricality. And I didn't find them here.
For a musical adapted from an effects-filled film, Big Fish struggles to achieve its own magical realism on its own theatrical terms.
Sadly, the musical rarely achieves the kind of gosh, wow spectacle one expects these days despite the deft melding of projected imagery (most notably, the flooding of an entire town) and such amusing props that pop up from the watery depths of the front of the stage as a big-finned mermaid and a final cameo from that title fish.
For the record and for what itís worth, this is the first musical Iíve seen with a live sonogram on a large rear-projection screen above a doctorís office where Willís pregnant wife is visting to find out her babyís gender.
What makes that scene poignant, albeit in a rather schematic way, is that itís only on half the stage while the other half reveals a separate and more somber doctorís visit by Edward and Sandra. They already know whatís what, and the audience by then already has received a pretty big clue that not all is well – but the large X-ray image above that doctorís office confirms the bad news that heís been withholding from his son: Edward is dying of cancer.
Norbert Leo Butz, right,and Kate Baldwin in the first-act finale of Big Fish. Credit: Paul Kolnik
Despite the family melodrama inherent in such a scenario, this musical in its most effective moments does touch the core of the mystery of a manís life. While the film focused more on how a son measures and grapples with his fatherís life, the musical is much more about the father – reinforced by Butzís dominating performance.
No ifs, ands or Butz – Big Fish, to a greater extent than it probably should because of its central performance, works to a large extent as a star vehicle.
That may make Big Fish one of those Broadway musicals, like Sunset Boulevard or to some extent The Producers, that simply donít work anywhere near as well once its original star leaves. (A good reason, by the way, to catch this show this season in New York and not wait for a national tour.)
Only time will tell, but I suspect enough theatergoers will respond with their big hearts to this undeniably gut-wrenching fable.
Big Fishshould be able to swim in Broadwayís big pond for some time before that becomes a big issue.
IF YOU GO
Big Fish continues in an open run at 7 p.m. Tuesdays. 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd St. New York.
For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com
For more information, visit www.bigfishthemusical.com