Review Roundup: ‘Big Fish’

Big Fish, the new musical based on Daniel Wallace’s novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions and Tim Burton’s 2003 film version, opened on Oct. 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre. Five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman (The Producers, Oklahoma!) directs and choreographs while two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can), and Tony nominees Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow) and Bobby Steggert (Ragtime) star in this fabulous fable of a father and son connecting across the years. The music and lyrics are by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, The Addams Family) and John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride), author of the film’s screenplay, writes the book. The cast also includes Krystal Joy Brown (Leap of Faith), Zachary Unger (Chaplin), and Tony nominee Brad Oscar (The Producers).

Charming storyteller and travelling salesman Edward Bloom (Butz) has always spun betwitching tales, but his loose relationship with the truth estranges his son Will (Steggert) who is about to have a child of his own. As Edward’s health declines, he tells Will the story of his life—an adventurous saga full of witches, werewolves, giants, and his quest for his true love, Will’s mother Sandra (Baldwin). Did the critics swallow this Big Fish story?

Brad Oscar, Krystal Joy Brown, Bobby Steggert, Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Ryan Andes take a bow during curtain call on opening night  (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Brad Oscar, Krystal Joy Brown, Bobby Steggert, Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Ryan Andes take a bow during curtain call on opening night (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

 

Ben Brantley, The New York Times
“[Butz is] a fine instinctive, athletic dancer, in the tradition of James Cagney, and I felt a real, rare frisson whenever Edward was allowed to cut loose physically to enact his fables of derring-do. But the songs by Mr. Lippa (The Addams Family) don’t give Mr. Butz much to work with vocally or emotionally. A combination of country-and-western strings and Broadway brass, their melodies evoke cowboy-TV-show theme music of the early 1960s, with lyrics by Hallmark. Mr. Steggert’s singing exudes a radiant sincerity that transcends corn, and Ms. Baldwin brings a good-old-girl grit to the woman who stands by her man, no matter what.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“There’s a huge gap between what you see and what you hear in Big Fish. Visually speaking, this new Broadway musical is inventive, playful and often downright magical. But then, we expect nothing less from director Susan Stroman, the whiz behind The Producers and The Scottsboro Boys. Unfortunately, Andrew Lippa’s score is a hack job stringing one banal non-tune after another.

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers) wraps the show up in a splashy production that glides from circus to enchanted forest to war zone to a brilliant field of daffodils. Nice work by set designer Julian Crouch and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy. Stroman’s dances—tap, waltz, hoedowns—are polished but a bit pedestrian. She’s famous for wild imagination, but she serves her “Big Fish” without a showstopper. Lucky for us, she managed to reel in a winner by casting Butz.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York
“The ‘real-world’ songs are especially meh; one wishes that the creators had taken bolder advantage of their material’s structure by limiting the musical numbers to the fantastical flashbacks. Big Fish has lovely sequences, and earns some sniffles at the end. But it could have been a real catch.”

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
“Butz proves he’s simply in a league of his own, able to switch from middle-aged to teenager in a snap, offering a complex portrait of a Southern man while avoiding good ‘ol boy cliches, and he even spends some of the night lying in a hospital bed, not the most expected way to lead a musical. But then there are lots of other fun surprises at “Big Fish,” including elephant fannies.”

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“With his stocky build, short stature, and thinning hair, Butz is an unlikely leading man, but he has the loose-limbed energy and charisma of a young Dick Van Dyke. The radiant Kate Baldwin is underused as his sympathetic wife, though she brings her silken voice to the beautiful second-act ballad, ”I Don’t Need a Roof”—one of the highlights of the mostly tuneful score by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family). Steggert is less compelling as their not-so-likable son, particularly in the problematic second act saddled with several superfluous fantasy numbers and an ending that packs less of an emotional wallop than it should. For the most part, though, Big Fish finds theatrically inventive ways to reel audiences into its central love story. In this case, it isn’t boy-meets-girl but father-hooks-son. And Edward Bloom is quite a catch.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
“At the risk of inviting the usual unhinged tirade in the comments section, Big Fish seems like a Broadway musical that might qualify for a Tea Party endorsement. It’s a hymn to America the Delusional, with a motto that might be, “If you lie with enough conviction, it will eventually be accepted as truth.” The fact that the show is set in a squeaky-clean South devoid of troublesome socio-historical context makes it all the more simplistic… But many audiences will lap it up, and nobody’s begrudging them that. A lot of loving craftsmanship has gone into this musical, and it delivers satisfying entertainment for those who don’t mind being emotionally manipulated.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“Resisting the usual Broadway tendency toward over-production, this show is perfectly scaled to the modest level of Edward’s boyish daydreams. Invention, not excess, seems to be the dominant house rule, from the tight choreography, which is quick and clever and never over the top, to the primary-color projections by Benjamin Pearcy that make a comic-book universe of Julian Crouch’s sets. William Ivey Long captures the playful vibe with ingenious costumes that move in unexpected ways (like the fishtail of a mermaid’s silvery costume) and contribute their own magic to the storytelling (like the witches that materialize from the trees in a forest).”

Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“Edward’s stories do accommodate flashes of Stroman’s playful wit. In one scene, characters from a Western flick strut out of a TV set; in another, Edward, as a young solider, heroically chases the enemy through lines of tap-dancing chorines. Too often, though, the choreography seems more busy than vibrant, with ensemble members spinning around creatures ranging from a sultry witch (an overbearing Ciara Renee) to a friendly giant (a resonant-voiced Ryan Andes). Butz, Baldwin and Bobby Steggert, as the grownup Will, all bring a sense of genuine humanity to their roles. In the end, though, this Big Fish lacks the imagination or cohesion to reel you in like one of its hero’s yarns.”

Matt Windman, AM New York
“The rich, gothic mise-en-scène and seamless transitions of the film are replaced with poor quality songs, a slow pace, excessive sentimentality, one-liners that consistently fail to land, a clumsy structure and an ugly set where video imagery is projected onto what look like barn doors. In the film, Edward was played by both Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor. Butz, a two-time Tony winner, is stretched too thin in playing both the younger and older Edward and fails to inhabit either believably. But he deserves credit for throwing himself so fully into the show.”

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