Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Work-in-progress holds promise and wonder
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
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.
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.
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.
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 Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BroadwayInChicago.com and BigFishTheMusical.com. (Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, includes an intermission)
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)