a theatre, film & pop culture review
I’ve never seen the film, but I doubt I’d be too attached to it if I had: I’m not a huge Burton fan. Which is to say I had zero expectations or preconceived notions going into this Big Fish, an uninspired musical adaptation with book by John August (who also scripted the film) and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. One could call it a flop. A score with no hook. A musical that doesn’t quite reel you in. Har, har, har.
The basic — and utterly predictable — story revolves around Will Bloom (a rigid, emotionally stagnant Bobby Steggert), a young man beleaguered his entire life by his father Edward’s tall tales. You see, Edward (Norbert Leo Butz), a traveling salesman with a romantic streak a mile-long, encourages his boy to “be the hero of [his] own story,” filling his head with over-the-top fantasies about gregarious giants, premonitory witches and shifting (a la True Blood) circus ringmasters. But what’s real and what isn’t? Bobby struggles with his father’s truths, while dad just grapples with what sensational story to tell next.
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman seems to have garnered inspiration from last season’s smash-hit Pippin, but her circus of characters and acrobats isn’t nearly as thrilling, though the dancing elephant butts are winking-good fun. Big Fish‘s magic is more akin to The Little Mermaid‘s — cheap-looking and largely uninventive (rollerskating fish are more imaginative than one standing in the orchestra pit waving her arms around). Instead of allowing scenic designer Julian Crouch to dream up a lush, whimsical world for each new story, Benjamin Percy injects each scene with busy, unnecessary projections, like flowered wallpaper on a bedroom wall or a dark wooded forest akin to one might see in a video game. Strike that — most video games have better visuals than Big Fish. To her credit, Stroman attempts to fill in the visual void with creative choreography, such as twirling dancers costumed as trees, with leafy bat-like wingspans (the dozens of charming costumes are by that master of creative quantity, William Ivey Long), but the show too often suffers from literalness. When Edward woos his future wife with her favorite flower, hundreds of synthetic-looking daffodils pop out of the stage as if on jerky springs, rather than blooming into loveliness. (You’ll think of the poppy scene in the Wizard of Oz and wonder how there’s been no improvements in crafting fake flowers since 1939.)
Speaking of those daffodils, there’s an entire song about them, with poor Norbert Leo Butz crooning “daffodiiiiiiiiiiiiiils” over and over again thanks to Lippa’s banal lyrics. The score isn’t much better — just a wearisome string of similarly-soaring ballads. The beautifully-voiced Kate Baldwin, who is criminally underutilized in a “happy to keep his dinner warm” supporting role, has One Big Song about not needing a roof, only Edward — but I zoned out because the staging had her sitting stock-still downstage for the number’s pleasant, but generic entirety. Lippa has always been a composer with immense potential (will he ever have another john & jen?), but his scores are always ultimately underwhelming. Between this and The Addams Family, he’d better be careful, or he’ll verge into Wildhornian territory, composing undistinguished scores for laughable shows.
But no, that’s too harsh: Big Fish isn’t terrible. In fact it’s rather sweet in a totally harmless, slightly dull, way. And it does get one thing 100% right. Norbert Leo Butz is predictably brilliant as the man of a thousand myths, lovingly creating a character (and dozens of characters within that character), that are not actually in the script. While the rest of the cast sails through the show, not attempting to delve under the surface of August’s shallow script, Butz plunges into depths of his own making. Edward, despite his sensational shenanigans — which Butz, with clownish charm to spare, can regale with punch and pizazz in his sleep — can be a hard-to-like fellow. He’s the type who ignores his son’s desperate, wedding-day pleas and brandishes a toast that is more about him than the blissful couple, happily living in a world of his own making rather than celebrating real-life accomplishments and owning up to near-mistakes. Performing a character who’s constantly performing, Butz manages to revel in the sugary entertainment with his boundless energy and impeccable comic timing while also revealing the darker side of an absentee father who always longed to be something more than he was. Those boyish features — that twinkle in his eye and lightness to his step — charm and transfix us: only Butz could fight the dragons of such medicore musical theatre and come out on the other side, not just unscathed, but immaculate.