Monday, October 14, 2013

"Big Fish" Tells a Whopper

The thing about Big Fish is that it looks fabulous.  Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman knows how to set ′em up then pull out all the stops with energetic and/or synchronized dance numbers.  She overwhelms us.  Combining fantastical scenic design by Julian Crouch and imaginative Projection Design by Benjamin Pearcy, glittering lighting design by Donald Holder and the always fresh costume design by the ubiquitous William Ivey Long (he designed Norbert Leo Butz’s trousers to cling just enough to showcase his lovely bum, thank you very much), these fine theatrical pros have created a visual feast of a thousand delights. 

If only the music could keep pace with it.

In this carnival like atmosphere we are surrounded by Edward Bloom’s wondrous view of the world. Composer & lyricist Andrew Lippa’s contribution is outclassed by the rest.  Yes, it gives Butz and the sweet clear voice of Kate Baldwin a little fun, a little sorrow, and allowed Bobby Steggert to pierce the upper register.  But Mr. Lippa has not given us any tunes to stay with us as far as 52nd Street, however pretty or character-appropriate they seemed when sung by the excellent company.  Since this is a musical, one must pause — is all that razzmatazz, rather like special effects in a film that lost its plot along the way, there to make us ignore our disappointment with the unmemorable music, lyrics, and book?

Kate Baldwin is strong and sweet as the redhead Edward Bloom loves at first sight, while Kirsten Scott is equally effective as Jenny Hill, the girl he left behind. Special marks go to the young Zachary Unger whom I saw as young Will and later as Will’s son.  Bobby Steggert as Will is adept yet not inspiring; Krystal Joy Brown is charming as Will’s wife.

Excellent the company surely is, exemplified by the fact that I saw an understudy in the role of Amos Calloway the circusmaster.  Preston Truman Boyd, while he seemed a bit young for the role, stepped up with confidence, if not yet polish.

I don’t believe in applauding a performer because he or she shows up on time, so I didn’t applaud when Norbert Leo Butz made his first appearance as Edward Bloom.  Many did, however, yet it was a different sort of ovation: This was not people applauding because they saw a Star of stage or screen.  It was a wave of love.  Thus began a remarkable performance.

Norbert Leo Butz is our Everyman on that stage.  He makes suspension of disbelief in this magical musical easy.  He speaks, then suddenly you realize, oh, he’s singing now.  Effortless.  Beautiful.  There’s no transition.  He speaks, he sings, he walks, he dances.  He lives Edward Bloom on that stage and makes it all seem worthwhile.  For a while. 

The question is, can this show survive without Mr. Butz?  My presumption is… not for long. However luscious the production values are, I do not believe the book by John August (who also wrote the screen adaptation) or Mr. Lippa’s music can hold up without Mr. Butz’s astonishing and engaging emanation of love and hope.  Mr. Butz’s Edward is a man with dreams, and if life is too ordinary, he’ll tell the tales so as to make it wondrous. 

Mr. August’s book has left me hungry, and for that I am grateful.  While I saw the film and enjoyed it, I now wish to go further back in the life of Big Fish and read the original novel by Daniel Wallace.  There’s stuff in there that did not make it into this musical version, and I yearn for it.

The visual production of Big Fish will make you gasp and exclaim.  It’s wild and crazy, a gorgeous world overflowing with fields of daffodils, populated with circus giants and witches and a mermaid.  You won’t exit the theatre singing, but you will be happy.

It’s at the Neil Simon Theatre.  On 52nd Street. Where you will forget any music you heard as soon as you exit the theatre.  You will not, however, forget Norbert Leo Butz.

~ Molly Matera, signing off in search of a bookstore.

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