Neil Simon Theatre
October 22, 2013
Shari on the Aisle Rating: ***
Lead Cast: Norbert Leo Butz (Edward Bloom), Bobby Steggert (Will Bloom), Kate Baldwin (Sandra Bloom), Brad Oscar (Amos Calloway), Krystal Joy Brown (Josephine Bloom), Ryan Andes (Karl the Giant).
Director and Choreographer: Susan Stroman
Background: Big Fish is based on the 2003 film directed by Tim Burton, which is in turn based on the 1998 novel written by Daniel Wallace. The story revolves around the problematic relationship between a traveling salesman named Edward Bloom and his son Will. The son resents his father for being largely absent during his childhood and for telling an assortment of what Will considers tall tales throughout his life.
Notes on the Cast: Ask a random New Yorker on the street what they think of Norbert Leo Butz and chances are you’ll be met with a blank stare. Now ask a Theatre Geek (let’s abbreviate this as TG) the same question and a rapturous look will appear on his or her face before responding, “Oh my god! I love, love, love him!” When I e-mailed the above photo of myself with Mr. Butz to my TG cousin she immediately responded with lots of cartoon hearts and exclamation points. A colleague at work (an actor, so of course a TG of the highest order) told me he hated me when he saw the photo. (And I think he was only half kidding).
This brings us to whether you should see Big Fish. If you’re a bona fide TG, this question doesn’t even come up; NLB’s name on the marquee is reason enough to buy a ticket. He is always brilliant. He never disappoints. He makes everything better. You love, love, love him. His Tony-winning turn as Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can (especially his show-stopping number “Breaking All the Rules”) probably transformed hundreds of theatre goers into fervent TGs.
Another reason to plunk down your bucks is the very talented Bobby Steggert (Will Bloom), who wowed audiences as the younger brother in the recent revival of Ragtime. Steggert has now attracted his own, well-deserved TG following. (He was also pretty fabulous in Lesley Headland’s Assistance at Playwrights Horizons, among other roles). Kate Baldwin, familiar to Broadway audiences for her Tony-nominated role in Finian’s Rainbow, plays the thankless role of Sandra Bloom, Edward’s loving, long-suffering wife. Recognizing her talent, the production team tosses her a couple of musical crumbs (including the heartfelt “I Don’t Need a Roof”), but basically, this is a show about fathers and sons. Rounding out the cast, in a supporting role as Amos Calloway, is the reliable and always delightful Brad Oscar. Theatre Geeks remember him for his Tony-nominated performance in as Franz Liebkind in The Producers.
What’s So Great about Big Fish? Other than NLB, the main reason to see Big Fish is for its intricate, absolutely gorgeous stagecraft. Using a sophisticated combination of projection (Benjamin Pearcy), lighting (Donald Holder), costumes (William Ivey Long), and scenic design (Julian Crouch), the production team creates a stunning world where the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred (mirroring the questionable veracity of the lead character’s tales), but everything is beautiful. Costumed actors form trees. Elephant tushes dance. A radiant mermaid rises from the sea. And, perhaps most memorably, a seemingly endless field of brilliant yellow daffodils burst into bloom on stage. It takes your breath away.
What Else? The story is sweet; the message poignant: Be yourself. Love each other. The circle of life. The music (Andrew Lippa, who also wrote the lyrics) is somewhat repetitive, but there are highlights, especially two songs Edward sings to his son. In the stirring opening number, “Be the Hero,” Bloom urges Will to dare to live his life to the fullest and on his own terms: “Be the hero of your own story if you can. Be the champion in the fight, not just the man. Don’t depend on other people to put paper next to pen. Be the hero of your story boy, and then you can rise to be the hero once again.” In another standout moment, in Act 2, Edward attempts to justify his traveling salesman existence to his resentful son in “Fight the Dragons:” “I’m not made for things like mowing lawns or apron strings. I’m my best when not at rest. Comes the day it’s time, I’ll pack it up and bring my stories home to you.”
The Bottom Line: So, are you a TG? If not, do you want to become one? If the answer to either question is a resounding “yes,” go see Big Fish. It’s a pleasant enough evening. If you want to go full-out TG, wait by the stage door after the performance and have your picture taken with NLB or Bobby Steggert or even Brad Oscar. I did—with all three.