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Theater review: 'Big Fish'

Dennis King Published: October 16, 2013

NEW YORK – “Big Fish,” in both Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 film, was a whimsical tale that celebrated exaggeration as a kind of ruggedly individualistic folk art. Paradoxically, each was distinguished by an almost delicate touch of understatement that rendered both book and movie exquisitely and blithely touching.

“Big Fish” on Broadway, under the razzmatazz direction and choreography of five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), is by contrast big, bold and baldly sentimental. In the elaborate production that opened last week at the Neil Simon Theater, the salty father-son conflict at the heart of the story gets buried beneath a dazzling onslaught of stagecraft. And the story’s fanciful conceit falls prey to musical theater sappiness.

Befitting the original story’s traveling circus milieu and its tall-tale aesthetic, the stage show is brash, larger-than-life and spectacular to watch. But the human contours of the story get buried beneath a weepy, sentimental wave of clichéd music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family”).

The latest in an ever-expanding array of successful films getting the musical-theater treatment (we have “Matilda,” “Once” and “Kinky Boots,” with musical versions of “Little Miss Sunshine,” Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” from Stroman and “Rocky” coming in the spring), “Big Fish” embodies the best and the worst of Broadway extravagance.

In telling the story of fabulous fabricator Edward Bloom (a robustly bluff Norbert Leo Butz), a Southern traveling salesman given to tall tales that eventually put him at odds with this literal-minded, journalist son Will (Bobby Steggert), the book by John August, who also penned the movie’s screenplay, stays close to the larger narrative of the novel and movie.

The outlandish tall tales that Edward concocts to entertain his young son and flabbergast his patient wife Sandra (graceful Kate Baldwin) are rendered in wondrous bits of stagecraft by scenic magician Julian Crouch, costumer William Ivey Long and lighting designer Donald Holder. The visual riches range from a sexy mermaid finning through a stage-front stream, three humongous elephant behinds dancing in a circus stable, a lumbering forest giant, a spell-casting witch, a ringmaster werewolf and a garden of yellow daffodils spouting from every surface of the stage.

It’s all spectacular and, well, boldly exaggerated. But the central story is a more fragile thing – a whimsical meshing of Paul Bunyan, Walter Mitty and Baron Munchausen – that requires a delicate touch. In Butz’s boisterous performance and in Steggert’s stubborn pragmatism we get little real sense of the emotional ties and the gap between father and son that should animate the drama of the story. Instead, it’s all song-and-dance emotions underscored heavily by Lippa’s pedestrian score. (“In time my boy is sure to see/Brighter days for Dad and me/And we can do things better than before/So that strangers we will be no more.”)

“Big Fish” at its best celebrates bombast as a creative way of making an otherwise mundane life feel worthy and epic. But too much bombast ultimately sinks the show and turns what should be a scrappy, off-track, imaginative brew of folksy wisdom into a schmaltzy parade of mundane show tunes.

- Dennis King