Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Big Fish Is Flashy but Limp

Big Fish is, unfortunately, both the name and a sad metaphor for the new musical now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.  It pops up on stage, huge and magical, where it flops around for a while before dying a slow and painful death, right before our eyes.  This is through no fault of the cast, who valiantly try to breath lightness and humor into the lead weight of a story.

If you, like me, have fond memories of the movie, then the failure of its adaptation is puzzling at first.  Big Fish is the story of Edward Bloom, a southern salesman who is addicted to spinning yarns about his life.  He is the life of the party, and a man who can entertain anyone, but can’t connect with his son.  Norbet Leo Butz works hard to make Edward Bloom likeable.

In the movie, two men played Edward – Albert Finney as the older dying Edward, and Ewan McGregor as the young man trying to make sense of the world.  Here Mr. Butz does both turns, and therein lies the problem.  Edward’s son Will (an underused Bobby Steggert) just wants a dad.  But Edward can’t be just a dad.  He has to hold forth on his adventures, which are always are larger than life and obviously truth challenged.
Big Fish Cast in a Giant Hoe Down

Edward is entertaining to a fault, but chooses to ignore his son’s request – even when young will actually begs him to just talk to him.  In the movie, it is easy to divorce old Edward from the younger actor who is discovering his youth.  On stage it is hard to empathize with a father who can’t be bothered to even listen to his son.   It is awkward to watch dad ignore his sons request and instead tell him another story of how great he was.

The vignettes in which Edward retells a story are entertaining.  There are giants, witches, mermaids and Edward always the hero.  But the sheer number of them, recanted at the distress of the son, soon become numbing.

And in the second act, Edward starts dying.  And, like Evita in full Andrew Lloyd Webber glory, Edward does not go quickly.  Depending on your view of Edward, this lengthy and song studded death is either sad or annoying, but in any case it goes on too long.  Ultimately, Will’s only chance to reconcile with his father is to accept Edward as he is; shallow, self-absorbed, but funny.  The moral of the story is that asking your father to be a parent is selfish.

Edward’s wife is played by Kate Baldwin, and is excellently used in Edward’s fantasy flashbacks.  She is a strong presence on stage, bringing some humility to Edward’s life (if only by repeating that he can’t help who he is).  On the other hand, Krystal Joy Brown is criminally underused as Will’s young wife – her wonderful voice never even heard.

The sets, arguably the star of the show, are excellent and transforming.  But the wonder of the sets cannot sustain interest for two full acts despite the great work by scenic design by Julian Crouch.

I wanted to love this show: the actors are great, I liked the movie and hoped for some magic on Broadway.  Instead the transfer to the stage highlights the limitations of the story.  Big Fish just doesn’t work as a stage musical.  
Big Fish
Director: Susan Stroman
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, Bobby Steggert, Krystal Joy Brown

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