The hype is true. Undeniably, absolutely, one-hundred percent true. Rarely do I cave into “must-see” hysteria from popular and artistic culture. When I am told that something or someone is too extraordinary to be missed, I subconsciously set my expectations high. So high in fact, that upon seeing the “not-to-be-missed” performance, this self-proclaimed “Snooty Crankypants” greets the mass acclaim with my usual temperate response: “That was OK.” And then I creep back into my curmudgeonly dungeon and wait for the next over blown phenomenon to arrive.
In this rare case, I have joined the leagues of wise musical theater aficionados who have placed Norbert Leo Butz on a towering pedestal. From major roles in Rent, Wicked, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, this flexible showman rightfully joins the ranks of Broadway royalty. Butz is in fact, one of our finest contemporary theater performers and is triumphantly leading an accomplished cast in Director Susan Stroman’s production of Big Fish.
This splashy musical is based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, and the Columbia Pictures film written by John August. August also wrote the book to this stage version. Big Fish tells the story of Edward Bloom (Butz), a small town “average joe” who is known for spinning hyperbolic tales of grandeur to family and friends. Bloom’s son, Will (Bobby Steggert) , is about to tie the knot and fears that his now elderly father, whom he barely understands, will hijack the ceremony with one of his infamous fables. Shortly following the wedding, both father and son are faced with life altering moments and slowly start to learn more about one another. Much of the narrative unfolds in the past through Edward’s “memory” and Butz has the daunting task of playing him both as a young man and a now aging senior. If Tony voters don’t recognize his flawless performance, we might as well call Suzanne Somers and ask her if she is available to revive her catastrophic one woman show, The Blonde in the Thunderbird. In other words, Butz is a shoe-in for at least a nomination. While not a matinee idol in the traditional sense, he brings immeasurable acting flexibility, humor, charm and winsome warmth to this demanding leading man role.
What makes Edward’s life story so pleasantly curious is the fact that it has been either exaggerated or completely fabricated. What is the purpose of it all? In his own words: “Surprise ending. Wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.” While I won’t ruin the surprise ending, I would advise that you bring an ample supply of Kleenex. The final moments of the show will soften even the hardest of hearts. My guest and I, along with most theatregoers, exited to the streets with tears in our eyes–an indication that this piece has served its purpose of affirming life and portraying grace extended beyond boundaries.
But like the central character (and every human being for that matter), the show itself is not without its’ flaws. Much of the criticism I have towards this stage adaptation is the very same criticism I had from the 2003 film. Both are too long. Bloom’s stories, while whimsical and imaginative, frequently begin to stagnate into a sea of boredom. Similar to an unruly drunk uncle at a family gathering who has repeated the same stories for the last five years, we wish that we could simply fast forward to a fresh chapter.
Composer Andrew Lippa has penned some tuneful and memorable songs for the show, most of which have a driving, rambling, country essence. Appropriately, they match the restless spirit of Edward Bloom and the small town from which he hails. In particular, Edward’s songs, (“Be the Hero”,”Fight the Dragons”) serve as cheery self-help anthems-reminding us to reach beyond ourselves and to carve our own destinies. Sure they border on schmaltz, but just a touch adds richness to the mix. In Act two, Sandra Bloom (the elegant and classy Kate Baldwin) delivers a straightforward, but lovely ballad (“I Don’t Need a Roof”) about the unfailing love for her husband and the power of marriage. Some of the other music however, becomes as tedious as the tall tales and does little to propel the story.
The trend of Image projections seem to crop up in a majority of Broadway shows these days and while I am not usually a fan, designers Julian Crouch, Benjamin Pearcey, and Donald Holder have brought us a panorama of beauty and spectacle which perfectly complements, but never upstages the story.
The ensemble of Big Fish is solid and everyone is bringing top talent to the stage. But the show truly belongs to Edward Bloom. While you should be suspicious about how he is weaving the story of his own life, it would be foolish not to believe that Butz has breathed inexhaustible life into him and is giving us a legendary performance that will be talked about in truth for years to come.
Big Fish, which opened on Oct. 6th has unfortunately posted a closing notice for Dec. 29th, 2013. I could be cheeky and use puns like, “Get a ticket before the fish swims away” or “You’ll be hooked by Big Fish” but I’ll simply be dull and boring and say. “Go see it!”
Big Fish is playing now through Dec. 29th 2013 at the Neil Simon theater (250 W. 52nd street between Broadway and 8th Avenue). Tickets available at the box office, online at http://www.ticketmaster.com/Big-Fish-a-New-Broadway-Musical-tickets/artist/1859083or by phone: 877-250-2929