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Aisle View: Fish Are Jumpin'

10/10/2013 05:45 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2013

Intelligent, unconventional, non-cookie-cutter Broadway musicals are so rare that we try to go out of our way to encourage those that come along. Susan Stroman's Big Fish, at the Neil Simon, is such a one. Based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 screenplay by John August, this chronicle of an Alabama traveling salesman who can't resist telling fish tales offers a larger-than-life hero who fits right at home on the musical comedy stage.

Norbert Leo Butz, as Big-Fish-in-a-small-pond Edward Bloom, gives yet another ultra-memorable performance. The star and his character, though, are hampered by the episodic adventures that comprise the story. This format worked well in the fantastically imaginative Tim Burton film version. On the musical stage, alas, these adventures inevitably turn into a series of production numbers; too many production numbers, and too few that rouse us. This can be seen early on in the "witch" story, which starts with tree-leaf dancers (or are they supposed to be bats?) swirling around and culminates with a witch-character singing a substandard "witch" song. Ms. Stroman gives us a very funny elephant dance, and an amusing Tommy Tune-type USO number on a staircase, but Big Fish is not Stroman at her most inventive.

The trouble with these episodic adventures is that they are like gaudy pieces of costume jewelry on a chain. Most of them glitter, more or less (although one, set in a Wild West saloon, is altogether damaging). Strung together, they remain individual strands that don't coalesce. The root of the problem, besides the indifferent quality of some of the songs, is that only Edward is involved in each episode. (Only Butz, mind you, is not necessarily a detriment.) The four other main characters sometimes sit on stage observing the stories-in-progress, but rarely play a part in them. This is no way to build a satisfactory musical.

Director-choreographer Stroman does well by her leading man, and vice versa. While known mostly as a singing actor, Butz has always been something of a powerhouse of an eccentric dancer. Watching him here doing an Alabama Stomp -- which serves to entice fish to leap out of the river which replaces the orchestra pit -- Butz comports himself like a clog-dancing Slinky. (The primitive abandon of Butz's dancing is reminiscent of his first Broadway break, in the 2001 Susan Stroman-Harry Connick musical Thou Shalt Not. After being murdered onstage, he did a fantastical corpse dance that enlivened a musical that was otherwise D.O.A. Looking up my review of that opus, I see that I wrote "Butz appears to have springs in his thighs and mops on his feet.")

Stroman gets fine performances from costars Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert, although neither have much of an opportunity while Butz is telling all those stories. Baldwin, who gave a delightful performance as the Glocca Morra girl in the 2009 revival of Finian's Rainbow and an even better one in Michael John LaChiusa's Giant, is a prime asset as the wife; the show picks up every time the creators stop to let her sing. (She also seems to make the songs sound better than they are.) Steggert, from the off-Broadway Yank! and a major component of that same Giant, adds warmth to the proceedings as the son. He, too, scores with his few opportunities and ably holds the show together for the final half hour. Helpful contributions also come from Krystal Joy Brown as the daughter-in-law and child actor Zachary Unger as the young Steggert. (The delightful Unger, who came to notice as the young Chaplin in last season's biomusical, plays six performances a week.)

The aspirations of Big Fish are most successfully captured by the design team. Set designer Julian Crouch did an impressive job on The Addams Family, albeit within that show's clunky dictates. With Big Fish, he -- in league with projection designer Benjamin Pearcy and lighting designer Donald Holder -- creates pure stage magic. The same can be said for costume designer William Ivey Long, who by this point in his career seems to know how to do everything.

The show is a joy to watch, visually, starting with that enchantingly inviting river that shimmers in the orchestra pit. Here is a show in which, literally, fish are jumpin'. (This is the very same stage on which, almost eighty years ago, a long-forgotten soprano first sang that Gershwin song about the jumpin' fish.) The first act builds to a tableau of daffodils that sprout one by one and eventually overtake the stage. This is one of the spots where the entire creative team is most successful; after a first act that gradually builds momentum, this brings us to intermission with the hope that they will manage to pull it off.

But they don't. Lippa, whose most noteworthy credit is the unappetizing Addams Family score, does considerably better here. Some of the songs succeed nicely: Edward's opening number, "Be the Hero"; Edward and Sandra's duet "Time Stops," when they meet; "Fight the Dragons," for father and son; Sandra's "I Don't Need a Roof." A stronger score, though, wouldn't quite solve the structural problems. In place of a constructive stage adaptation, librettist John August seems to have simply taken his enchanting screenplay and penciled in, "song goes here."

All of which leaves us with a show that tries and strives to do something different. It doesn't succeed, and more's the pity. But Big Fish is certainly watchable, and offers more for adventurous viewers than other current Broadway musicals. This, plus the protean Norbert Leo Butz.