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October 7, 2013 5:13 pm
Big Fish flopped onto Broadway last night. With its seamless production by Susan Stroman, its whirling, projection-heavy set design by Julian Crouch and its iridescent costumes by William Ivey Long, this musical has dazzling visual effects. But visuals cannot disguise basic storytelling problems and the lack of an effective emotional through-line.
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, the hardest working man on Broadway, Big Fish is based on a 2003 movie directed by Tim Burton, which, like the musical, has a script by John August. That iteration had Burton’s gleeful sense of the macabre, and his trademark ability to make us laugh at death. The Broadway version, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa that sometimes had me wondering if I were at a Mumford & Sons concert, is more of an unabashed tearjerker.
In terms of central conflict, Big Fish is an odd choice for epic-sized musicalisation: it is based in anger. A young man called Will Bloom, now a reporter in New York, returns to his home in Montgomery, Alabama. He resents that at his marriage to the beautiful Josephine, his father, Edward Bloom, portrayed by Butz, indulged his habit of tall-tale spinning and secrets-spilling. But why the son so dislikes the father is never effectively established, which mutes the evening considerably.
Around the edges, the story illustrates some of the more fanciful of the father’s yarns, which involve a mermaid, a giant, a werewolf circus ringmaster, and a witch who forecasts the nature of Edward’s death. Throughout most of the first act, I was content to savour the magical forays into the fairy-tale woods of rural Alabama. Witches’ helpers transform into trees; a mermaid emerges from the moat-like waves above the orchestra pit; the behinds and legs of three elephants shimmy and shake with surprising grace.
But once the boffo second-act opening, “Red, White and True”, in which the rear-stage orchestra players are exposed, is complete, the show must unravel its thin father-son relationship. Will, given boyish charm by Bobby Steggert, investigates his father’s role in saving his hometown, Ashton, from a flood. And the family’s mother, Sandra, whose highly musical interpreter is Kate Baldwin, gets a fine, lamenting ballad to sing, when she realises her husband is dying from cancer. But the ultimate effect is hollow.
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