by Julie Congress · November 5, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #18: Julie Congress comments on Big Fish now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre
Upon exiting the Neil Simon, our eyes red-rimmed from the cathartic tears we had shed for the majority of Act II, my companion turned to me and said: “you know, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good the design or direction or music is – the story is the most important part.” I can think of no better way to sum up my experience watching Big Fish, a new musical based on the lovely movie of the same name. The story of Big Fish – all about a man, Edward, who tells tall tales and his son, Will, who analytically tries to find the scraps of truth within them – is just incredibly strong. The show is chock-full of adventure, creativity, and warmth, and Norbert Leo Butz’s beautifully truthful, and thoroughly entertaining, performance as Edward carries the piece to a completely fulfilling second act, though the design elements and music never live up to the imaginative heights the story cries out for.
Edward Bloom is a traveling salesman, a husband, a father and a self-proclaimed big fish in a small pond. On the eve of his practical-to-a-fault son Will’s wedding, Will begs his father not to tell one of his stories at the celebration. But Edward cannot help himself – it’s in his nature to weave truth and fantasy in all he does. Big Fish jumps back and forth through time (from Edward as a teenager to Will’s childhood to after Will is married with a child on the way). We see Edward as both the absent father and as the hero of countless tales – from his encounter with a witch who tells him how he will die to befriending a giant to joining the circus. All the while, Will, desperate to figure out who his father really is, searches for any sort of truth behind these fables.
Director Susan Stroman brings the story (and stories) to life in her clear, focused direction. She has some delightfully fun elements (many animal-related) to aid the transitions from everyday to fantasy, which I won’t detail here, as their surprise quality is part of their charm. Unfortunately, her choice to introduce all of the fantastical characters in the opening number diminished the mystery and surprise that would have been experienced had we not met them until the plot organically got to those characters.
Norbert Leo Butz proves that in a musical the acting comes first and foremost. An accomplished singer and dancer, his greatest strength is in bringing to life the flawed but completely well-intentioned Edward. Bobby Steggert does an admirable job with Will, but the character itself is rather uninteresting and one-note. Krystal Joy Brown emanates warmth as Will’s wife Josephine and Ryan Andes is infectiously fun (and powerful!) as Karl the Giant.
A strong tonal shift (for the better, in my mind) occurs in Stroman’s direction between the show’s two acts. Act I frequently feels as though it is winking at the audience. All of the characters, both in the “real world” and in Edward’s fanciful stories, are highly theatricalized and driven by a single character trait rather than a full-bodied human portrayal. As a result, it is difficult to get invested in anyone other than the fully formed and nuanced Edward. This particularly undermines us developing any sympathy towards the one-dimensional Will and the pregnant Josephine. Act II, however, moves to a more genuine and less audience-aware sensibility, allowing us to see the humanity of all of the characters.
Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics neither help nor hinder the show, hovering over the action without ever soaring. The impulse to turn the story of Big Fish into a musical makes sense – to create Edward as a song-and-dance man and add musicality, another element of larger-than-lifeness, to his tales is totally in line with his character and the theme of the show. However, the music is unmemorable and every song sounds very similar, leaving us washed in a general soundscape rather than transported to a magical, emotional place.
For something as rooted in imagination as Big Fish, I found the design elements disappointing. The color palette utilized by scenic designer Julian Crouch and costume designer William Ivey Long is drab, heavily reliant on green, and does not transport us to a world as creative as Edward’s flights of fancy deserve. The projections, by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions, are equally disappointing, exacerbated by the fact that many of us in the audience are coming in with memories of Tim Burton’s visually impressive film, and any projections in this musical must really excel (in quality or ingenuity) in order to wow us. Jon Weston’s sound design creates a soundproof wall between the action onstage and the audience, so that we can only hear the actors through amplification. Even though we are watching real live people just feet in front of us, it feels as though we are listening to them through speakers or a screen, and the effect is rather like listening to an audiotape tour while at a museum.
Edward frequently left his wife and son alone when he was out on the road, he has a temper and his concept of truth is very different from what’s socially accepted. Yet despite, and in many ways because of, these flaws, his friends and family love him. So too is Big Fish a somewhat flawed but completely loveable new musical.