Review: Big Fish the Musical (Broadway in Chicago)

| April 23, 2013 | 3 Comments
Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin star in Broadway in Chicago's "Big Fish" by Andrew Lippa and John August, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Paul Kolnik)       
Big Fish 

Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Book by John August
Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman
at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
thru May 5  |  tickets: $33-$100   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
        Read entire review


Work-in-progress holds promise and wonder


Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin star in Broadway in Chicago's "Big Fish" by Andrew Lippa and John August, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

Broadway in Chicago presents
Big Fish

Review by Lauren Whalen 

Fathers and sons. Fantasy versus reality. Reconciliation before death. Big Fish has tall tales, pretty flowers, songs and dances, but can it cover heavy issues without  descending into schmaltz?  Tim Burton’s 2003 film adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel was visually pleasing but hokey (which can describe most of Burton’s recent work). The pre-Broadway tryout of Big Fish almost achieves the balance of showy wow-factor and substantial story. Almost.

Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin star in Broadway in Chicago's "Big Fish" by Andrew Lippa and John August, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Paul Kolnik)Will Bloom (Bobby Steggert) has always lived in the shadow of his charismatic father Edward (Norbert Leo Butz). Now Will is a journalist living abroad, married with a son on the way, and hasn’t spoken to his father in three years until a phone call from mother Sandra (Kate Baldwin) changes everything. Despite his insistence that this isn’t the way he goes, Edward is dying of cancer and Will seeks to know the man who always evaded him, through Edward’s cadre of tall tales and some potentially devastating facts.

Pre-Broadway tryouts are experiments at heart; what we see in Chicago won’t be what ends up in New York. Big Fish packs a wallop of ambition, with a Tony Award-winning director/choreographer (Susan Stroman) and star (Butz), an acclaimed composer (Andrew Lippa), a team of impressive producers and designers, and an immensely multi-talented ensemble. Everyone wants this to work. At this point, it’s not quite there. Opening number “The God’s Honest Truth”, in which Edward illustrates the story of Will’s birth, tries hard but doesn’t mesmerize despite Butz’s best efforts, and the Western-inspired “Showdown” in Act II seems bizarre and out of place. The performers are obviously rolling with the punches at this point in the process, putting their game faces on and anticipating constant change. The buzz of energy is exciting to behold, but unrefined.

But I have hope for Big Fish. Because for every loss, there’s a bigger win.

Lippa’s score needs work, but memorable lyrics pop up left and right. (My personal favorite: “The ones who face their fears lead the most interesting lives.” – I want to frame that.) The Act I finale “Daffodils”, in which a young Edward woos college girl Sandra, is sweeping and romantic – fitting for a man who’s just shot himself out of a cannon. Stroman’s choreography, also seen in The Producers and Contact, is appropriate in a fantastical environment, taking inspiration from ballet with pretty arms and leg extensions for days.

Broadway in Chicago's "Big Fish" by Andrew Lippa and John August, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

Stroman’s deft directing hand shows itself more often than not, making even the clunkier moments seem promising. Benjamin Pearcy’s projection designs are absolutely seamless, a magic carpet transporting characters and audience alike. Big Fish’s enormous aesthetic potential – circuses, daffodils, trees and the ever-present river – present endless opportunities for moving art, and Pearcy’s images aided by Julian Crouch’s sets, Donald Holder’s lighting and William Ivey Long’s costumes paint not just one portrait, but a whole fantastical gallery.

The show’s small but powerful chorus cycle their way through a variety of roles with boundless energy. Katie Thompson is irrepressibly bawdy as a swamp witch/fortune teller and Ryan Andes is both funny and deeply empathetic as Edward’s (literally) giant pal Karl. Steggart’s Will is appropriately frustrated and hits some stunning high notes with aplomb. Tony nominee Baldwin has dazzling vocals, heartfelt delivery and elegant style as Sandra, balancing her lifelong love for a complicated man and her maternal instincts for their logic-loving son. As a performer, Butz is in a class by himself and as Edward he carries the show, transcending space and time with his distinctive, angelic singing, consistent allure and never-ending commitment. Butz is incredible on a CD. In person, he is otherworldly.

These factors aside, there’s one larger than life reason I believe in Big Fish: its ending. As secrets are revealed and fact and fiction somewhat reconciled, Edward prepares to leave this world and Will faces a life without his father. And everything comes together: the images, the songs, the moment where a life flashes back and forward. Out of all the musical endings I’ve ever seen, Big Fish is one of the most true. I wasn’t manipulated. I was genuinely, completely moved. For all its imperfect lead-up, Big Fish has a perfect end. Stroman knows exactly where she’s going, and Big Fish will get there. I know it will.

Rating: ★★★½

Big Fish continues through May 5th at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map).  Tickets are $33-$100, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at and time: 2 hours 45 minutes, includes an intermission)

Broadway in Chicago's "Big Fish" by Andrew Lippa and John August, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

Photos by Paul Kolnick




Norbert Leo Butz (Edward Bloom), Kate Baldwin (Sandra Bloom), Bobby Steggert (Will Bloom), Krystal Joy Brown (Josephine Bloom), Anthony Pierini (Young Will), Zachary Unger (Young Will), Ryan Andes (Karl), Ben Crawford (Don Price), JC Montgomery (Dr. Bennett), Brad Oscar (Amos Calloway), Kirsten Scott (Jenny Hill), Sarrah Strimel (Girl in the Water), Katie Thompson (The Witch), Preston Truman Boyd (Swing), Synthia Link (Swing), Alex Brightman (Zacky Price), Tally Sessions (Mayor), Ashley Yeater (Swing/Dance Captain)

Ensemble: Bree Branker, Joshua Buscher (Dance Captain/Fight Captain), Robin Campbell, Bryn Dowling, Jason Lee Garrett, Leah Hofmann, Angie Schworer, Lara Seibert, Cary Tedder

behind the scenes

Susan Stroman (director, choreography), Julian Crouch (scenic design), William Ivey Long (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting), Jon Weston (sound design), Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions (projections), Mary-Mitchell Campbell (musical director), Larry Hochman (orchestrations), Sam Davis (dance arrangements), Will Pike (puppetry design), Jeremy Chernick (special effects), Thomas Schall (fight director), Jeff Whiting (associate director), Chris Peterson (associate choreography), Joshua Halperin (production supervisor), Jason Brouillard (stage manager), Rachel Miller Davis (asst. stage manager), Tara Rubin Casting (casting), Paul Kolnick (photos)


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Category: 2013 Reviews, Andrew Lippa, Broadway in Chicago, Broadway-bound, Ford Center for the Perfoming Arts, Lauren Whalen, Musical, Oriental Theatre (Ford)

Comments (3)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I disagree. Just because one movie to musical transition was successful does not mean that every movie should be a musical. This was an excuse for spectacle. The last song went on for what felt like an eternity and overtly stated the themes of the play, just in case you wanted them in a distilled form that you could stitch on a pillow. Not to mention that the last scene was framed as the son inventing his first story–it was ironic that his garrolous father stole the scene again. Guess he was cool with it that time because dad didn’t dance with his lady.

    I think it has much further to go before it feels less like a clumsy, expensive spectacle and more like art.

  2. norm says:

    Just saw the preview in New York. Too long and absolutely horrible. No memorable moments.

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