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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Broadway Bound: Big Fish is the feel-sad musical of the year

Last night I saw a preview performance of Big Fish, the new musical now having its pre-Broadway tryout here in Chicago - and my recommendation is that you go see one of the other big musicals currently in town - Catch Me If You Can or The Book of Mormon. The former has a catchy score that you'll be humming on your way out the door, while the latter will make you laugh. Unfortunately, Big Fish has neither a great score nor a sense of humor. Instead it's one of the most depressing musicals I've ever seen.

I've not read the 1998 novel or seen the 2003 Tim Burton film, which the show is based on, so I went in with an open mind and high expectations - especially since the Tony Award-winning Susan Stroman (The Producers) is the director and the brilliantly talented Norbert Leo Butz is the star. But I was very disappointed - and now I can't tell everyone to be sure to "catch" Big Fish while it's in Chicago.

Whenever I see a pre-Broadway tryout of a new show, I always enjoy listing its musical numbers in my review as a way of discussing the good, the bad and the "you gotta be kidding me" moments. So here we go:

"The God's Honest Truth": The story begins with Edward Bloom (played by Mr. Butz) fishing in a river - and I must say I was impressed with this visual effect. The river is situated right in front of the stage in the orchestra pit, and it's simply three pieces of carved wood with a projection that makes it look like a flowing stream (I checked it out at intermission). As for the orchestra, they are hidden by scenery at the back of the stage on three levels. The action quickly moves to the bedroom of Edward's young son Will, where he tells the boy a bedtime story about losing his wedding ring in a big fish. And at one point, the bedroom is transformed into the belly of the fish through projections, which is another nice effect (kudos to Projection Designer Benjamin Percy). But Will doesn't believe his father's tall tales, which leads to Edward singing this first song, which is good - but the projections are better.

"This River Between Us": We jump ahead 20 years to Will's wedding day to a French girl named Josephine - and we are introduced to adult Will (played by Bobby Steggert), who has become an international reporter for the New York Times. He doesn't like his father stealing the spotlight with his often-repeated far-fetched stories, and they sing this nice duet about their difficult relationship. Unfortunately, the handsome Steggert doesn't have many more opportunities after this to show off his fine singing voice.

"I Know What You Want": We jump ahead again three years to two doctor's offices - one in Paris where Will and Josephine learn that she is pregnant, and one in Alabama where Edward and his devoted wife Sandra (played by the lovely Kate Baldwin) learn that he is dying from cancer. Then we get another tall tale from Edward, in which he meets a witch in the swamp as a teenager - and she shows him a glimpse into the future. This song - sung mainly by Katie Thompson as The Witch - is pretty good, but once again the projections outshine the music as tree roots magically come to life. This is one of the better scenes in the show.

"Born For The Water": Learning that his father is dying, Will returns home with Josephine, and the family sings this song about a Girl in the Water/Mermaid in one of Edward's stories. It's a perfectly pleasant tune.

"Bigger": We learn more about Edward's life, in which - as a young man - he meets a giant named Karl, and they sing this song. Again, it's a pleasant tune.

"Sandra's Wish"/"Little Lambs From Alabama"/"Time Stops"/"Closer To Her": These four songs are performed once Edward and Karl arrive at the Calloway Circus, where the former falls in love at first sight with an aspiring singer named Sandra. However, Edward has to work for the ringmaster Amos Calloway for three years before Amos will tell him who she is and where to find her. "Time Stops" is one of two songs that I really enjoyed in the show - it's a sweet ballad sung by Edward and Sandra. But the show overstays its welcome at the circus - with uninspired appearances by a few elephant posteriors and even a werewolf (yes, you read that correctly).

"Daffodils": Edward finally gets together with Sandra at her college, and they sing this pleasant duet with flowers blooming onstage as Act I comes to a close. As you may have noticed, I'm using the word "pleasant" a lot to describe Andrew Lippa's score because there really are no "Wow!" numbers in the entire show. Some of the projections are amazing, but the music most definitely is not.

"Red, White and True": I was hoping that this opening number of Act 2 would finally give the show some much-needed pizzazz as Edward tells another story about his exploits during the war. This song - sung mainly by Sandra and a group of tap-dancing USO girls - is a lame rip-off of "Our Favorite Son" from the 1991 musical, The Will Rogers Follies - except without the tambourine hats (which it could really use). And there is nothing worse in a musical than a big production number that is boring.

"Fight The Dragons": This is my second favorite song in the show, which Edward sings with Young Will in a flashback - but it doesn't move the story forward or add anything new that wasn't already stated in the opening scene between father and son. But I enjoyed listening to it.

"Showdown": Here is another big production number that left me cold. A dying Edward hallucinates that cowboys and other Wild West folks are stepping out of a TV set in his bedroom, and he and the adult Will have a "showdown" about their relationship. I just didn't care for it at all.

"I Don't Need a Roof": Sandra sings this tender ballad while comforting her dying husband.

"Start Over": Will investigates a secret from his father's past, and this leads the show to another flashback set in Edward's hometown when he was a young man. He and the townspeople sing this song, which is serviceable but not memorable.

"Time Stops": Sandra sings a reprise of this tune at the hospital, where Edward is now near death.

"What's Next"/"How It Ends": I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that Edward does die, and Will comes to an understanding about who his father really is. But these last two songs are - once again - pleasant melodies that adequately fulfill the requirements of the story. And you won't go out of the theater humming either of them.

Now the audience did give the show a standing ovation - but the only outstanding work that I saw was from Mr. Percy the Projection Designer (he deserves a Tony nomination). The hard-working cast does the best they can with the material they are given - especially the three leads, who are all very good. But Mr. Butz was better in Catch Me If You Can and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - both of which I consider to be far better musicals.

My main problem with Big Fish - besides its score - is that I just didn't care enough about any of the characters to be emotionally moved. Of course, it was sad to see Edward die, but I didn't shed a tear. I was, however, put in a somber mood early on by the show's gloomy theme of death, and there is very little comic relief to be found in John August's choppy, episodic book (I think I laughed once). Big Fish is a heavy-handed musical drama in search of a lighter touch, and hopefully it will find its creative way before arriving on Broadway next season.

Big Fish runs through May 5 at Chicago's Oriental Theatre and begins its Broadway previews on September 5 at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). For tickets and further information, go to You can also become a fan of the show on Facebook and Twitter.


Eric R. said...

That the 11 o'clock number was called "Start Over" was pretty accurate. Someone should tell the writers.

Marc said...

I would have to agree with your amusing and sadly on-the-mark comment, Eric.

Michael Lehet said...

I saw the second performance and like you I was underwhelmed to say the least.

I told friends it was like watching a movie on stage, only sometimes the volume doesn't work.

Marc said...

Hey, Michael, when the audience gave the show a standing ovation, I was wondering if my partner and I were the only two who didn't care much for it. So it's nice to know that we're not alone. Hope you're doing well.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the show needs a lot of work (perhaps start by cutting the dancing campfire and then EDIT THE HELL out of it) but the show has heart and some great performances. Being a fan of the book and the movie, I was not upset with this show at all and given that it is a tryout and has 7 months til New York, I am hoping the much needed revisions will get done - I was a mess at the end of the show and I was on my feet. :) (but maybe I am just a theater queen who loves a good story)

Marc said...

Hey, Anonymous, thanks for sharing your comments about the show. I definitely agree that BFTM needs a lot of work before opening on Broadway (its first preview is less than 5 months away). Maybe it helps to be a fan of the movie in order to appreciate the musical more. It just didn't do much for me - and I love a good story.

Anonymous said...

This makes me sad. I encourage you to see the movie, which is beautiful and touching.