Based on the novel & film by Daniel Wallace
Book by John August
Music & lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed & Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Music direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell
produced by Broadway In Chicago
At the Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Big Fish get swallowed by mediocrity
I must state that I have not read the book nor watched the film of Big Fish so I had no expectations about Big Fish the musical. But several things struck me as I wondered through the 2 hour and 40 minutes world premiere. First, since Big Fish is the story of a traveling salesman who loves to fabricate stories especially for his son, you’d think that man – Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) would be played as a charming, even charismatic soul? But Butz plays Bloom as a bland, even conniving person fueled by his corny jokes and obnoxious stories sporting a good-old-boy persona. In short, Butz plays Bloom without much heart so that we never care much for him and we even dislike him because he failed to spend enough time with his son despite helping strangers along his travels. We identify much more with Will Bloom (Bobby Steggert), the estranged son yet never believe that Will reconciles with his father at the show’s end.
Next, the score with music & lyrics by Andrew Lippa is a pastiche of Broadway pop, country with cliched numbers reminiscent of other shows with gospel, swing and tap with soaring anthems and bland ballads. These songs are mostly forgettable, you don’t leave humming any of them. Add the fact that, with the exception of Bobby Steggert, the cast is filled with weak singers lead by Norbert Leo Butz. His voice cracked often and his vocal skills were woefully inadequate. You’d think the producers would cast someone who can sing and someone with charm and charisma to play the lead in a show about a man’s life? Butz may be a Broadway darling but he is miscast as Edward Bloom since we never connect nor care about him. And his voice more irritates than adds to his persona. Stronger singers like Steggert would help make Lippa’s score more pleasing.
Next, John August’s book spends much time showing Will’s resentment with his father with many of Edward’s stories being effectively staged, danced and sung with Susan Stroman’s creativity. Julian Crouch’s set design aided by terrific video with Donald Holder’s neat light and William Ivey Long’s vivid costume design were the best elements of the production. The thrilling show-stoppers didn’t, however, make up for the weak book and the poor singing. It seemed the story meandered on only to be interrupted by the terrific show-stoppers then it morphed back to the story. Something is missing here. Maybe if we cared more for Edward, maybe if he was more charming, maybe if he could land his songs in tune, then maybe we’d care? Special effects and fine staging can only carry a show so far. In order to make it work, a shows need heart – to get us to feel for the main characters. We get Will’s resentment yet the revaluation of a kind act by his father simply isn’t enough to make up for years of amendment by his father. Add the general orneriness of Edward especially as he gets sick and we just don’t believe that Will would totally reconcile with Edward. The several endings that tried too hard to make that case and win sympathy for Edward. That rang hollow.
I think for Big Fish to be a hit on Broadway, it needs to consider casting stronger singers; play Edward with more warmth, charm and heart. I’d also cut some scenes and songs to give the show a more streamlined flow. The ending needs to be re-thought and tightened. The eye-popping visuals and the costumes and choreography are the best elements of the show. Now, re-focus the book and make Edward a loveable rascal and this show could swim with other Broadway big fish. There is the making of a show here.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: April 19, 2013
For more info checkout the Big Fish page at theatreinchicago
At the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL, call 800-775-2000. www.broadwayinchicago.com, tickets $33 -$100, running time is 2 hours, 40 minutes with intermission, though May 5, 2013