The ability to spin and sell a story is part of all the best magic tricks. Edward Bloom has a penchant for weaving tall tales to entertain his young son, Will, his family, and pretty much everyone else.
Likewise this Susan Stroman-helmed musical adaptation, with a book by John August and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, keeps its audience’s heads spinning with its big production numbers and splashy stage magic – it’s only when the confetti settles that we start to notice it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of substance and answers.
This show has a peculiar quality of having a sub-plot more clearly defined than its main plot. Take the big numbers off the table – they arguably function as metaphors and progress chronologically, but don’t really advance the plot in a concrete way – and like Bloom, we find ourselves meandering through a story, pausing for scenes in which new information is revealed about the characters, but not really doing very much with said information. Perhaps one would fare better having read Daniel Wallace’s source novel or having seen Tim Burton’s film to fill in the plot jumps and account for the characters’ motivations. But, then, the beauty and difficulty of adaptation is finding a way to create a piece of art that stands on its own merits, and works within the frame of its own medium. The great irony of this production is that it is inherently theatrical and yet struggles to function as a piece of theater.
Going back to that confetti for a moment. Courtesy of Julian Crouch’s sets, William Ivey Long’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting, and Benjamin Pearcy’s projections – on behalf of 59 Productions – the stage melts and transforms to suit Bloom’s fantastical visions. Stroman keeps a firm handle on the proceedings and uses the stage space inventively, utilizing the set’s multiple levels to paint attractive and witty stage pictures. Her choreography is at its best during Lippa’s better tunes, swinging ably from breezy Americana to big band to western drama. It is a shame, then, that the less-showy moments seem to have been glossed over in terms of pacing and also in terms of the material itself. Big Fish’s more standard-issue pop tunes are largely forgettable, save for quiet gems like “I Don’t Need a Roof,” which is particularly well performed by Kate Baldwin.
Baldwin’s lovely, understated performance as Edward’s steadfast wife Sandra makes her this production’s emotional center amid the bombast.The perennially welcome Norbert Leo Butz plays Bloom, the raconteur and patriarch. His outsize tales serve as misdirection from his life’s plainer truths. Similarly, the character’s potential is occasionally set aside in favor of a “more is more” approach. Butz’s natural charm works overtime. Fortunately, Stroman has a grounding force in her other leading players; in addition to Baldwin, Bobby Steggert grows into his role as Will once the character has a task to do beyond observing and reacting, and though Krystal Joy Brown is underutilized as Josephine, Will’s new wife, she finds some lovely moments, particularly in her scenes with Steggert.
Despite its structural issues, Big Fish brings it back around late in the second act. Like Edward Bloom, it ultimately has its heart in the right place. There is no harm in urging us to live bigger, love bigger, dream bigger – as the tagline does. The team clearly took that advice and ran with it, staging bigger, playing bigger. The best way to view Big Fish is to let go and enjoy the magic: despite its imperfections, its glittery excess, there are moments here well worth catching.