Big Fish Angles for Safe, Wholesome Family Fun

If Broadway musicals had trailers like movies, the one for Big Fish might go something like this: Meet Edward Bloom! He's a father and a husband with a big heart—and some tall tales. He tells one about being a wartime hero who saved a commander. He's got another one about a witch who told him how his life would end. And about the mermaid who taught him to swim, and the time he saved his little town from an angry giant. But now, after a lifetime of colorful make-believe, there's one story his grown-up son urgently needs to hear: who his father really is.

Of course, Big Fish, a new musical with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, actually was a movie. This Broadway version, now running at the Neil Simon Theatre, is based on the 2003 Tim Burton film and 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace—and it could not feel more like a Hollywood picture transposed to the stage. With slick direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, this song-and-dance extravaganza shows off its warm heart and a sentimental streak the size of the Grand Canyon.

Big Fish has two major things going for it: first, a calibrated performance by Norbert Leo Butz as Bloom, the traveling salesman whose illness triggers a family reconciliation. This is no Willy Loman, drowning in prideful self-pity; Butz is all strut and masculine Southern drawl, especially during Bloom's early years as a convivial small-town hero. Bloom brims with bravado—or so we imagine, since everything we know comes from his own outrageous stories (each one a big number) as he tells them to his frustrated son, Will (Bobby Steggert).

Spellbound: Norbert Leo Butz and Ciara Renee in Big Fish
Spellbound: Norbert Leo Butz and Ciara Renee in Big Fish

The true star of this big-budget spectacle, however, is Julian Crouch's set, which seems never to stop sliding, folding, and flying. Benjamin Pearcy's projection designs help the fluid imagery to morph at high speeds. The results sometimes look like a video game, with fields of daffodils sprouting from the walls or supernatural creatures floating in the woods. If this inventive visual team had a richer script to fulfill, the show might have soared.

Big Fish's not-so-strong suits, however, are the largely forgettable score and a hokey book (by John August) that goes for full-throttle tearjerker in the second half. Wholesome family entertainment is what we expect from today's tourist-driven Broadway, of course, but Big Fish provides that in surplus. The show is a relentless—but sincere—celebration of the good intentions of these nice folks in Alabama; even those characters with a little shade, like the mayor and circus ringmaster, turn out to be decent underneath. As Will points out, "In my dad's stories, the most beautiful woman is always my mom." A late song even emphasizes how "it all comes down" to "sons and wives"—belted out with hetero-normative zeal and no trace of irony.

Big Fish slows the fantasy machine for a finale gently echoing The Wizard of Oz, as Will tells us all to "be the hero of your story." But the gulf between the earnest family drama and an endless parade of epic adventures is too wide to bridge. You wonder if Big Fish could have done with a smaller pond.

 
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