A father tells his life story as a tailored fairy tale. Initially his young son believes the mythic larger-than-life stories -- but as time goes on the boy questions whether or not he's being led on. Only at the end does the now-grown son recognize that his father truly lived a big life and the added flair never mattered.
That's a brief overview of Big Fish, the movie-inspired musical that opened up at the Neil Simon Theater on October 6. However, it's also a reflection of the music and lyrics written by Andrew Lippa (Adams Family, Wild Party). The musical opens with the catchiest tune of the show -- a big dance number that features a mermaid, giant, witch and every other character we've yet to formally meet. Subsequently, the score provides only enough to keep the audience engaged up to the show's beautiful, tearjerking finale.
Adapted from the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and 2003 Tim Burton film, Big Fish follows the adventures of Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz), a natural born hero with an epic imagination. He thrives on his storytelling, yet it strains his relationship with realist son, Will (Bobby Steggert.)
Tony Award magnet Mr. Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can) perfectly transitions between the younger and older Edward -- roles that required two actors in the film (Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney). While his singing, dancing and acting are unarguably flawless, it's clear the score vocally and emotionally held him down. Mr. Butz's voice surpasses most on Broadway, yet he never has the opportunity to explode as Edward Bloom. The same can be said for many of the stars. The only song that takes advantage of an actor's full range is "Stranger" expertly executed by Mr. Steggert (Ragtime).
For anything the music lacks in scope, director and choreographer Susan Stroman (The Scottsboro Boys, The Producers) more than makes up for in complicated beauty. Borrowing only the color palette from Tim Burton's film, Ms. Stroman creates a magical world through the use of lighting, projection and an ever-manipulating set. She is able to completely transform the stage in a single light cue.
During one of the biggest scenes, the circus ringmaster Amos Calloway (Brad Oscar) says, "People want to see things beyond their imagination," and that seems to be the mantra of the show. Julian Crouch's scenic design and William Ivey Long's costume design accomplishes effects only matched by CGI. But there's a limit.
For every optical illusion that takes the scene to a higher level, there's a visual gag that threatens to derail it. The best moments of the musical are when the magic tricks go back into Ms. Stroman's hat, and the actors are able to interact human to human. The scene where Edward's wife, Sandra (Kate Baldwin) holds him and sings "I Don't Need A Roof," the whimsical colors and huge set pieces fade into the background and, for the first time, the focus is on the woman Edward married. It's an intimate moment -- one the 2003 film never offered.
Like the movie, it's impossible to sit through this production without the occasional grin, and only people born without tear ducts won't get misty during the closing numbers -- but there are three types of movie-turned-musicals. On one side of the spectrum you have musicals that are unnecessary reflections of its source material (Stroman's Young Frankenstein); on the other, you have musicals that you are adapted back into movies (Stroman's The Producers). Big Fish lies somewhere in between.
At the Neil Simon Theater
250 West 52nd Street, Manhattan
Run Time: Two hours 35 minutes