One of the biggest obstacles when seeing stage versions of popular movies is that as an audience member you will inevitably end up comparing it, often unfairly, with the film counterpart. Which leads to a basic question why did this have to be on stage? And more importantly why did it have to become a musical?
Big Fish is currently showing at the Oriental Theatre downtown until May 5th and will be transferring to Broadway later this year in September. Although the original source is a 1998 novel, it’s more closely based on the 2003 Tim Burton movie. Big Fish tells the story of a man, Will Bloom (played by Bobby Steggert), who comes to reconcile with his estranged dying father, Edward Bloom (played by Norbert Leo Butz). In the last days of his father’s life, Will starts to understand that the tall tales his father use to tell him were rooted from reality. It’s a story where we get to see inside the child-like fantasy world of the father’s imagination and through that we are witness to some live imagery on stage such as dancing elephants, trees that come to life, and a river flowing at the front of the stage.
But therein lays an obstacle. Live theatre cannot and should not compete with the special effects in movies. We go to the theatre, as opposed to films, to be entertained in a different way that’s more direct than film. Theatre has to do justice to a story better than film by doing less. Usually the live effects of stagecraft tend to overshadow the story. Big Fish has the opposite problem. The stage imagery is done well, but it’s not the grand colorful special effects that were so memorable from the movie version. Perhaps that was intentional though. By being unable to mirror the visual effects from the film, famous stage director and choreographer Susan Stroman with her design team decided to make it hokey by using projections and costumes to create many of the illusions. This has the effect of both dimming audience expectations from the movie, but also amplifying Will Bloom’s view of his Dad’s stories as lame and annoying.
It’s easy for the audience to sympathize with Will’s annoyance of his father’s stories. A good majority of Act 1 was occupied with going through the Dad’s tall-tales after all. Act 1 is hard to sit through, not because there’s nothing happening, but because there’s a lot happening and we don’t know why any of it matters until Act 2. The first act sets up the tension between Edward and his son Will. This tension is represented both metaphorically on stage with a river draped over the orchestra pit and also literally with an unnecessary song called “This River Between Us”. But if Act 1 is about building the divide between them, then Act 2 is about crossing it. Act 2, especially the last thirty minutes, is where the show really comes into its emotional core. Suddenly the stakes are raised, everything comes alive, and we are rewarded with one of the most honest and tender moments I’ve ever seen in a musical.
Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz gives it his all portraying Edward Bloom as a young energetic man full of life, a middle aged man trying to inspire his son, and as an old man on the verge of death. It must be exhausting for the actor to play this part night after night and I give my applause to him in a big way. Kate Baldwin who plays Edward’s wife Sandra is equally as stunning, especially in her heartbreaking Act 2 ballad “I Don’t Need A Roof” though I do wish she had given the song more levels. Katie Thompson provides one of the better moments in Act 1 with her tingling rock-style vocals and comic timing as the Witch during one of Edward’s early tales. But by and far, the most compelling and genuine performance belongs to Bobby Steggert for his honest portrayal of the grown-up Will Bloom. Through Will, we get to the emotional truth that is at the heart of the show.
Andrew Lippa, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, succeeds in putting together songs that advance the story. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean they’re good. Lippa’s songs never reach the full heights that they did in his previous musical The Wild Party, but thankfully they’re still not as awful as what he wrote for The Addams Family musical. Still one gets the feeling that they’re over-written, awkwardly worked in at places, and for the most part just bland. Lippa’s music is never memorable, but he does his best when he gets to the emotional truth of his songs as he did towards the end of Act 2. In the rare times when Lippa manages to focus his songs on its emotional intent, he does them justice. On the other hand when he writes songs that do nothing other than to advance a plot point he fails. The book written by John August who also wrote the screenplay for the movie is clever and fast-paced, it only falters when trying to jam in Lippa’s songs in many places where they don’t belong.
So is it worth seeing? Yes and no. The stage version isn’t terrible and they clearly put a lot of time and effort into it. But it’s not until the last half hour that the show succeeds in finally becoming as good, if not better, than the movie version. Big Fish had to be done live on stage because Edward’s stories are “larger than life”. They are theatrical events in and of themselves and putting that on stage amplifies that to a degree. Theatre after all is about the art of great story telling.
But why did it have to be a musical? Well that’s just it… It didn’t. As much as the show tries its biggest fault is that most of the songs are rather dull. That fact more than any other is what’s keeping Big Fish from being as good as it could be. Hopefully with some fine -tuning and major edits can it be ready for its Broadway opening in the fall. Big Fish as it stands now is a rough draft and not a finished project.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes including a 15 minute intermission
At Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Book by John August
Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman
Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm
Wednesdays and Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm
Tickets range from $33.00 to $120.00