Entertainment

Big Fish

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Sunday Nov 17, 2013
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Norbert Leo Butz and Ciara Renee in ’Big Fish’
Norbert Leo Butz and Ciara Renee in ’Big Fish’  (Source:Paul Kolnik)

Do you have relatives coming in from out of town who want to see a big, splashy, sentimental Broadway musical? Are you afraid of unintentionally steering them toward something casually blasphemous, obscene and wildly in-your-face?

Do you like your Broadway shows heavy on the spectacle and sentiment? Or do you prefer to sit back and simply let a show wash over you rather than be challenged by intellectual heavy lifting or depressed by downbeat serious works?

If you answered "Yes" to any of the above, then "Big Fish" is the perfect show (but only by Dec. 29, after which "Big Fish" becomes "Dead Fish"). Certainly, the night I saw the show, the audience, most of who seemed to be visitors, loved it.

Myself? Not so much.

First of all, let it be said that the performers uniformly did the best they could with the material (with the caveat that no one even tries to affect an accent, even though "Big Fish" is set in Alabama). The one who does by far most of heavy lifting, however, is Norbert Leo Butz, who is on stage the better part of the evening, most of the time singing, dancing, flopping around, changing outfits and quick-changing his persona from teenager to middle-age.

For once, an actor earns the standing ovation that has become inevitable at every Broadway show these days. Judging from the burst of applause and even screams that greeted his stage entrance, Butz has finally graduated into the rarified ranks of Broadway stars like Nathan Lane, Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald whose name alone can open a show. No performer, however, can rise above his material.

The problems with "Big Fish" are many, beginning with the script. I’ve never seen the film version of the novel, but people have told me that it bears the Tim Burton trademark combination of high camp and fantastical terror. John August, who wrote the book to the Broadway musical, is a longtime collaborator with Burton, including "Big Fish."

Way too often, August tells the audience rather than showing them. For example, Edward Bloom’s new daughter-in-law explains to her new husband, Will, how his dad’s stories stand for major life events that add up to a grand lesson he’s trying to impart to his son as his most important and lasting legacy.

At other times, there’s neither showing nor telling -- just way too much assuming. When Edward proposes to Sandra, they’ve only just met and only had a brief glimpse of each other once before. It’s easy to see why she breaks off with her jerk of a fiancĂ©. But the only reason she gives for accepting Edward is that, well, there isn’t a reason. She just, you know, thinks he’s nice.

To make sure that we know that that first chance encounter was love at first sight, the highly respected director/choreographer Susan Stroman has everyone on stage freeze in shadows except for the spotlit future lovebirds, who telegraph their emotions. Didn’t I see this somewhere else? Oh yes, the gym scene in "West Side Story."

Here as nearly everywhere else, Stroman resorts to the literal and routine. The fantasy sequences that illuminate Edward’s tall tales are as unnerving as a Halloween ghost begging for candy. In fact, the whole show -- including the choreography, plays it safe. Far from campy, "Big Fish" is as square as a revue in Branson, Mo.

Ultimately, a musical rises or falls on the strength of the score. Rather than moving the action forward, the musical numbers bring it to a halt.

Composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa picks out of a grab bag of Country & Western, pop ballad, ’50s rock and on and on for each song. Rather than picking a genre and sticking to it, the results are generic without the hooks to make any of them memorable. As for the lyrics, they seldom rise above the sincerity and cornball of a Hallmark card.

I assume that the producers and creators had envisioned using Edward’s stories as a framework to celebrate how the human imagination can soar above reality, enrich our lives, explain ourselves to others and even overcome the fear of death. So it’s especially ironic that "Big Fish" makes no such demands on the audience, which isn’t allowed to do any imagining of its own. Everything is broadcast in the most detailed way possible.

Yes, having trees come alive during the sequence in which Edward meets the swamp witch who tells him how he will die is a nice stage effect. And the final father-son reconciliation is a guaranteed tearjerker. But such moments are very few and way too far between.

If the set designer hadn’t overwhelmed the song "Daffodils" with a lifelike rear projection of row upon row of flowers; if the costume designer had dressed the circus owner who entraps Edward in a dirty, torn, rundown ragged ringleader outfit; and if the musical arranger had let us hear the melodies instead of burying them in over-orchestrations, "Big Fish" might have at least had the chance to succeed as a chamber piece.

Instead, it’s Exhibit A of how really talented, smart people get lost in the tubs of money routinely thrown at Broadway musicals these days. As usual in all things dramatic, Aristotle said it first and best: Art works best within limits.

All of the characters in "Avenue Q" accept that a normal-sized woman is the very short sitcom actor Gary Coleman. So the audience does, too. In "Big Fish," two guys in stilts covered by a huge costume play a giant. It might be a coup de theatre, but, like much of the rest of "Big Fish, it’s the path of least creative resistance. Compared to "Pippin," which has almost no sets and purposely tacky outfits, "Big Fish" is more of a beached whale.

"Big Fish" runs through Dec. 29 at The Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St. in New York. For information or tickets, call 866-870-2717 or visit www.bigfishthemusical.com

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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