Tim Burton's film BIG FISH (screenplay John August from Daniel Wallace's novel) isn't as big and Gothic as Burton's films usually are. Its central character is Edward Bloom, an Alabama fabulist who cannot help creating and telling fantastic stories about his past involving mermaids, witches and giants. Bloom has turned his life into a myth. Is any of it true? That question plagues his much more literal minded son, eager to know who is dying father really is. Burton turned this story into a Fellini-ish spectacle, hurt by miscasting Albert Finney with a terrible accent as the older Bloom and Ewan MacGregor as his younger self. Some of the effects were interesting -- they always are in a Burton movie -- but, typical of Burton, the film is heartless
The new musical BIG FISH (book by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, direction Susan Stroman) is anything but heartless. The creators realize that essentially this is a family story, capturing a man's undying love for his wife and one of the central American dramatic themes (think DEATH OF A SALESMAN, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT), a growing understanding and love between a father and a son. Where the film is cold, the show is sweet. Where the film seems to sprawl, the show is tight, enacting only the tales Bloom weaves that are necessary for us to understand his life.
Most of all, the show is a vehicle for a great star turn and a brilliant designer. Norbert Leo Butz plays both young and old Edward Bloom and has the majority of musical numbers. It's a tour de force and he gives a magnificent performance. He's such an immensely likable performer that the audience is with him from his first entrance. From then on he holds the stage effortlessly in what is an extremely demanding role. He totally inhabits his character. It reminded me how much better acting has gotten in musicals since I was a kid. We had star turns by good comics or singers getting through the lines passably. Directors like George Abbott weren't very concerned with the book scenes. Now we have a superb batch of singing actors who can do anything well. Even in this field, Butz's performance stands out. Bobby Steggert is excellent as Bloom's skeptical son. Like Butz, he seems to be able to do anything well. Kate Baldwin doesn't have as much to do, but plays the loving wife wwith warmth and charm and, as always, sings beautifully. The supportin cast couldn't be better.
The second giant star of this production is British designer Julian Crouch. Visually, this is one of them most beautiful productions I have seen. Much of the work is done by video projections. I have watched this technology be used well (KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, many operatic productions) and used terribly (Trevor Nunn's production of Tom Stoppard's THE COAST OF UTOPIA, Andrew Lloyd Webber's disastrous THE WOMAN IN WHITE). Crouch and his team (59 Productions) have used projections to create both the fantasy scenes and the family saga. There are also some dazzling live effects. Everything works. And William Ivey Long's costumes, particularly in the fantasy sequences and stunning. Visually the show is sheer magic.
Of course, one cannot credit the designer without giving ample praise to the director. Stroman has done her best work here, better as director than as choreographer. The dance routines are nothing to write home about, but she tells the story movingly and has used her actors well. I can't imagine a better production of this work. I saw a late preview that lost its rhythm in the last ten minutes -- that needs some tightening up--but otherwise looked ready to open.
Last, but certainly not least, John August's book well constructed and deeply moving and Andrew Lippa's score is perfect for the story and even memorable. We found ourselves singing one of the songs are we walked down 8th Avenue after the show.
Yes, I loved BIG FISH. An extremely well written and performed show with a lot of heart. It's not a well constructed machine like so many recent Broadway musicals. Much of the show's warmth comes from Norbert Leo Butz'. It's a performance no one who loves musical theatre should miss.
BIG FISH. Neil Simon Theatre. October 2, 2013.