Saturday 19 October 2013

Big Fish

Neil Simon Theatre, New York City


Book by John August
Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Susan Stroman

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz

Big Fish is an imaginative piece of new musical theatre to emerge on Broadway. Based on Tim Burton’s 2003 movie, the show’s book is by original screenwriter John August and with the innovative approach of Andrew Lippa’s compositions and Susan Stroman at the helm, the show would be expected to have a sound pedigree.

The Big Fish of the title is a euphemistic reference to the tall stories that Edward Bloom, played by Norbert Leo Butz has told throughout his life. Bloom is a curious character, an ordinary travelling salesman by trade supported by a wise and loving wife Sandra (Kate Baldwin), struggling to earn the respect of his grown-up son Will (Bobby Steggert). For a plot that is seeking depth through fantasy, this show does at times skim over very shallow waters. That Edward blurts out his son’s impending fatherhood during the young man’s wedding, after having been expressly forbidden to do so is a an act of such crassness that it almost justifies the contempt in which Will views his father. If Bloom Snr is truly so insensitive, what hope for reconciliation between the two men can there possibly be? 

With the first act demonstrating the pain of father and son at emotional loggerheads and with a death in the family clearly signalled, come the interval one could be forgiven for mistaking the show for a musical take on Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. Fear not though, for with Harvey Weinstein amongst the show’s producers however, darkness is to be banished. There has clearly been every intention for this to have been a thoroughbred Broadway production, sired by Hollywood out of Stroman and where an ending of pure schmaltz is de rigeur. 

If act one drags, the second half zips along with pace and spectacle. Stroman’s zanily patriotic vision of Red, White And True offers more than a nod to her brilliantly choreographed Springtime For Hitler from The Producers and Butz proves why he is one of today’s leading men on Broadway with masterful deliveries of Be The Hero and Fight The Dragon. The show clearly has impact, for when Butz sings his final number, How It Ends, many of the audience sobbed. Sandra is a cleverly crafted character and Baldwin's pragmatically wistful I Don’t Need A Roof is a fine performance.

Suspend your disbelief as high as possible, enjoy the talent on display and you will find the show to be a moving and occasionally, an enchanting night at the theatre. Don't expect Big Fish to swim the Atlantic anytime soon though. It's an un-ashamedly all American show, that's likely to find itself flapping out of water on this side of the pond.

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