Nobody across the country has a clue who Norbert Leo Butz is, but the minute he opens the show when the curtain goes up on the new Broadway musical Big Fish, the audience goes berserk. You know you are in the presence of a star. The enthusiasm wanes midway and the applause grows limp by the end of the show, but not the star. He has the energy of all the acts in a three-ring circus combined. He dances with the libidinous abandon of a Mexican jumping bean. He sings with the gusto of a down-home jamboree. And he can act rings around most of the performers currently gracing New York prosceniums. Sometimes, the lightweight whimsy of Big Fish seems almost worth the trouble -- especially when Mr. Butz leads a star-spangled chorus of dancing girls in red, white and blue tights, waving flags and tapping like Gene Kelly while dressed in a Boy Scout uniform. But oh, how the whole thing sags between tunes.
Big Fish, at the Neil Simon Theatre, is a musical cartoon about a father-son relationship that rises and falls between harsh realities, but mostly glues itself together through tall tales. The source material (a soporific overdose of imagination that first appeared as a novel by Daniel Wallace and later, as a 2003 movie by Tim Burton, starring Albert Finney) centered on a big-time liar named Edward Bloom from a hick town in Alabama who finds a story under every stone, waiting to be told, exaggerated, elucidated and embellished. Mr. Bloom, now in the winter of his years and dying of cancer, has spent his entire life telling elaborate tales to make himself look important, to the embarrassment of his son Will, who now returns home to the South and sits by his father’s death bed trying to get at some version -- any version -- of the truth. And so, in a series of interminable flashbacks, the old man relives the ludicrous falsehoods of his youth involving witches, giants and mermaids. “Be the hero of your own story,” is the talisman he gives his son Will to live by. Mr. Bloom’s wife Sandra (Kate Baldwin) goes along with the blarney, but as a child, Young Will senses his dad is a fraud when he insists you can catch a Big Fish by singing a song called the “Alabama Stomp”. Will grows into a man (played by the agile musical performer Bobby Steggert), becomes a pragmatic lawyer, husband and father on his own, his aging father’s fantasies lose their charm completely, while his wife buys it all, hook, line and sinker. So they look back on the colorful characters in the stories in Edward Bloom’s life -- in one tale, an agoraphobic giant emerges from a cave and eats the livestock, but Bloom saves the town by befriending the monster and escorting him to a big city where the buildings are the same size as the giant, making him feel at home. Returning through a haunted swamp, he finds the Big Fish of the title swimming in the river in the form of a naked woman. Later, he becomes the client of a witch who predicts his future, and a purveyor of magic who can fill the stage with daffodils. The show is about how Will and his father reconcile their differences, solve their problems and accept the positive aspects of Mr. Bloom’s life, and how Will learns to pass on his dad’s upbeat philosophy to his own son.
Through music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family) we get the war stories with the entire orchestra stationed above the proscenium, the preposterous tale of “How I Met Your Mother” after being shot out of a cannon and landing on her college campus. In actuality, he was a traveling salesman, on the road from town to town, trying to make a living. But in the stories he brought home to his kid, he fought dragons, joined a traveling circus, and won the war single-handed. All of which gives Susan Stroman a chance to do what she does best -- dress up the stage with her signature props and gimmicks -- and keep the action moving. Even in his sick bed, dying of cancer, Mr. Bloom’s room fills with cowboys, saloon girls, and Wagon Train extras, emerging from the television set. In the Tim Burton movie, Danny De Vito played a naked werewolf. It was a sight you do not want to see. Trust me. The play drags on, light as lard. But at least it spares us something.
Norbert Leo Butz plays each chapter with maximum authority, a voice strong and sure and rangy, and a body that plays leap frog with everything surrounding it. The songs in Big Fish are not memorable, but they do give him a lot of opportunities to sing and dance in a variety of musical styles. Unfortunately, his versatility and magnetism travel only so far. Sadly, my interest flagged and my mind wandered. But fear not. Norbert Leo Butz has already survived one of the most awkward names they’ve ever tried to fit on a theatre marquee. He will survive Big Fish.