Monday, October 7, 2013

REVIEW: Big Fish

Review of the Saturday, October 5 evening preview at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York City.  Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, Bobby Steggert, with Krystal Joy Brown, Zachary Unger, Ryan Andes, Ben Crawford, Brad Oscar, JC Montgomery, Ciara Renee, Kirsten Scott and Sarrah Strimel.  Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia Pictures screenplay by John August.  Book by John August.  Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Choreography and direction by Susan Stroman.  2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: C

The newest musical on Broadway, Big Fish, is all about a guy who spins fantastic yarns to spark his uber-realist son's curiosity and imagination and to maybe just maybe fill in the gaps left by a door-to-door salesman's absence in a boy's life.  And like its subject, the team behind this ultimately too-giant show pulls out all the creative stops to tell this tale, dazzling us with a cavalcade of costumes, chorus lines and enough scenery and lighting effects to put a Vegas spectacle to shame.  You certainly get your money's worth in those departments.  But much like the realist son in the story, after it is all over, you start to wonder where the real substance is.  For all of its razzle-dazzle and sometimes stunning tableaux, Big Fish ultimately fails at what should have been its biggest asset: an emotional pay off.

Were Big Fish just a fun, frivolous piece - the type that Susan Stroman (The Producers, Crazy for You) is probably most famous for - it would be above average.  But as John August's half-the-time way too earnest book, and about half of Andrew Lippa's serviceable, occasionally wonderful score remind us time and time again, it is really about reconciling and repairing the relationship between father and son, restoring peace to a family before one generation ends and a new one is born.  And there is nothing wrong with the constant juxtaposition of flights of fantasy and earthbound reality.  In fact, it speaks to the potential of the work, and fundamentally, why this work was born to be a Broadway musical, maybe even more so than the film the preceded it.  Unfortunately, the creative team seems unable to bring the two together without overdoing both, and yet somehow managing to under serve both at the same time.  The result is a series of spectacular production numbers, and I mean sincerely that they are all truly spectacular.  But, like a diet of chocolate only, the first few bars are a scrumptious treat, and then each new candy gets just a little less sweet, until each bite is just like the one before.  Put the book and score on a judicious diet, and who knows what this could be.

William Ivey Long, a sure contender for the Tony come spring, has created another magical cavalcade of costumes.  Some magical - literally - like the Witch, the Lady of the Sea, and the Giant, others more bound to Earth, like the USO showgirls, the 50's footballers and cheerleaders, and TV Westerners are all lovely, eye-catching and Broadway caliber.  Equally nice is Julian Crouch's rustic Americana set, a mix of old barn walls and traditional Broadway drops and set pieces, which move in and out and up and down with the simplicity and complexity of a good piece of origami.  This serves the rapidly changing scenes well, as does Benjamin Pearcy's complex use of projections.  While there are some of your now-standard static picture scenes (the landscape, the outside of a house), there are some other ingenious uses of animated projections that do everything from title the fantasy sequences to showing the progress of years through animated growing trees and foliage to a rushing river.  Often, it is Donald Holder's lighting design that holds all of the elements together, no small task, trust me.  But as eye-catching and jaw-dropping as all of it is, after about the fourth sequence of spectacular-ity, it starts to dawn on you that all of the stops have already been pulled out, and there just aren't any more tricks up their sleeves.  (Oddly enough, the one scene that really sticks with me is probably the most (and only) old-school one of the lot, the Act Two opener, "Red, White and True," with its heart-stopping build of story, dance and an gasp-inducing final reveal that sent the audience into rhapsodic cheers.  It was what Big Fish should have been from start to finish.)

The other part of the show - the downer part - sets up all of the building blocks of a powerful family drama, then keeps giving us the same bricks over and over - an unyielding, unchanging brick wall without variation.  When it finally comes down, it falls just as you expect it will, not revealing a single thing you didn't already know was behind that wall.  Even the "surprise" plot twist comes off as un-shocking - it just proves that real life isn't nearly as spectacular as the human imagination.

Enter, I thought, Susan Stroman, the queen of turning the mundane into the thrilling (remember the ropes and washboards in Crazy for You ?) and the splashy into the Nirvana that Broadway musicals used to be ("Springtime for Hitler," anyone?).  Well, that genius never really showed up, either.  I picture a lot of compromising, gnashing of teeth, and "well-that'll-have-to-do"'s.  Don't get me wrong, there are some nice artful touches - slow motion dancing, fun visual gags involving cowboys, and a couple of truly gifted tumblers (Jason Lee Garrett and Cary Tedder) used several (read too many) times.  And the dancing is very good - Broadway style tapping, spins and couplings.  But it isn't Stroman at her best.  Honestly, it isn't even Stroman at her mediocre.  Let's call it Stroman For Beginners.  The problem is that no one on that stage, or the book and score for that matter, deserves such short shrift.  Had the same woman that brought us the frivolity of The Producers and the emotional wallop of The Scottsboro Boys brought her A game to this, Big Fish would be the huge hit it so desperately wants to be.

What saves the show from itself is the uniformly outstanding cast - one of the best currently on Broadway - who are working very hard and are almost convincing in making us believe they believe in the entire thing.  Mercifully, they don't over play the fantasy stuff, and they don't push during the more annoying "real life" scenes.  The ensemble, including the always wonderful Angie Schworer and Sarrah Strimel, appears to be genuinely enjoying themselves, even if they aren't really being stretched here.  And the "main characters" in the fantasy sequences really shine, being both fantastical and totally relatable.  Ciara Renee is appropriately mysterious and menacing as the Witch - though she could drop character at curtain call like everyone else does.  Brad Oscar looks like he's having a ball playing the travelling circus ringmaster (with a cool secret), elevating every line he has, and Ryan Andes is making a terrific Broadway debut as a giant named Karl.  In retrospect, it isn't so surprising that the cast members saddled with the "real life" characters make far less of an impression.  I hesitate to call them all boring, because it is clear that it is the roles, not the actors, at fault - it is obvious mainly because of the uniformity of the blandness.  JC Montgomery, Kirsten Scott, Ben Crawford and Alex Brightman do the best they can, but they are no match for the banal book scenes, unmemorable songs and the comparatively dull visuals that accompany the "reality" scenes.

Poor Krystal Joy Brown, she is the glue that holds the scenes together - the go between for a sour character and the audience.  As Josephine, wife of Will the son, she often has to vocalize justifications for her husband's increasingly heartless pursuit of the "truth" about his dying father, and a sort of rally-the-troops "excitement" for another in a long string of tall tales.  In short, Josephine is there to try to make us like the unlikable son and to keep us as excited as we first were with the stories.  Fortunately, Ms. Brown pretty much pulls it of - her smart, no nonsense delivery and her beautiful smile are beguiling and sweet.  Little Zachary Unger, so fantastic in Chaplin last season, is still in search of a show to match his talents.  To his considerable credit, he has managed to be endearing while still nailing the gravitas and angst of his adult counterpart.  For that alone, this young man should be applauded; he continues to be a young actor to watch for in the future.

Leading lady Kate Baldwin continues a spectacular career despite being in projects unworthy of her considerable talents.  She does everything she possibly can as the love of our hero's life, and she is great.  She makes the real life scenes bearable, and makes us fall in love with her all over again in every fantasy sequence.  With probably the best written role of the supporting characters, Ms. Baldwin milks every single moment out of it effortlessly and honestly; it is no wonder that men are fighting over this woman. Her two big solo numbers, "Two Men" and "I Don't Need a Roof" are effective and affecting, with her depth and honesty enriching both.

Which brings me to the son and father in this father-son story.  I have to give big props to Bobby Steggert who is playing what might be the most dissatisfying protagonist-antagonist since Pal Joey.  It has to be difficult to play this role.  Talk about single-mindedness!  Here is character that simply refuses to see that his father, was still a big and guiding presence, though often physically absent from his son's young life.  I mean we get it, already, Will Bloom has issues with his eccentric father.  But, really, if he loves his mother (and his wife) as much as he keeps telling us (Will is one repetitive S.O.B. if nothing else) he would at least try to take their word for it that his father isn't the bad guy he thinks he is.  Only at the very last - literally and figuratively - moment does he finally cave and see his father and his legacy for what it is - truly fantastic and life-altering.  Too much too late for me, I'm afraid.  Even his Act One aria "Stranger" doesn't plead his case convincingly, though Steggert sings it beautifully.  Of course, as that number is "in reality," it suffers from the same malaise that all of those scenes have.

And then there is the fantastic, magical star-turn (and likely Tony-nominated) of Norbert Leo Butz who has poured his heart and soul into this role.  He is truly deserving of the rapturous standing ovation he gets.  Not since Donna Murphy in The People in the Picture has an actor so effortlessly and completely aged and un-aged before our very eyes.  And his wide-eyed wonder and awe at his own yarns reveals the thrill that every story is supposed to instill in us.  This is a tour-de-force, triple threat role, and Butz is more than up to that daunting task.  The show's big thematic anthem, "Be the Hero," is all the more exhilarating because Butz delivers it with a this-is-my-life's-credo zeal. And I really believed his love in both "Time Stops" and "Daffodils."  His acting is superb, and he can no longer joke that he's "not a dancer."  Still, when the guy has to literally work in blocking that includes wiping his brow, one has to wonder if anyone should have to work that hard.

At the end of the far superior first act, I was all ready to be choking back the sobs by show's end - anyone with father-son issues is a likely candidate for such an outburst. But I only got a little misty.  I wanted to leave emotionally spent and exhilarated.  Instead of hooking the "big fish," I came way with a filet-o-fish - not too bad when it's going down, but hardly filling in the end.

(Photos by Paul Kolnik)


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