Big Fish

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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.

A Night with Janis Joplin

Joplin

Date:               October 2, 2013

Theatre:          Lyceum

Shari on the Aisle Rating: **1/2

Lead Cast:     Mary Bridget Davies (Janis Joplin), Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’ Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, Nikki Kimbrough.

Background: Before landing on Broadway, “A Night with Janis Joplin” toured as “One Night with Janis Joplin,” playing most recently at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The show was commissioned by Joplin’s estate. Mary Bridget Davies toured with the show and won a Best Actress Award by the Cleveland Critics Circle, a 2013 Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Musical (at Arena Stage), and a BroadwayWorld nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. The role of Janis Joplin is so vocally demanding that Kacee Clanton fills in for Davies at matinee performances. Written and directed by Randy Johnson.

Quick Take: “A Night with Janis Joplin” includes performances of many classic rock & roll tunes from the Joplin songbook, including “Tell Mama,” “Summertime,” “Down on Me,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Mercedes Benz.” It also includes performances by actresses portraying Joplin’s musical influences: Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, and the Chantels.

The Performance: If I were writing this review based solely on Act I, I would say the show, including Ms. Davies, lacked energy and immediacy. I felt removed from the performance, and Ms. Davies appeared to be holding back. Oddly, the only standout performances in Act I were supplied by Davies’ supporting cast, specifically Taprena Michelle Augustine as the Blues Singer and Allison Blackwell as Aretha Franklin.

Act II was a different story. Ms. Davies channeled Joplin’s deep-seated, visceral emotion, for a moving performance that brought the audience to its feet. Her performances of “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee” were stunning, nearly mimicking the intense feeling displayed by Joplin herself. The band, directed by Ross Seligman, was excellent throughout, and the guitar and bass work echoed the psychedelic sound on Joplin’s original recordings.

In Addition: I’m not a huge fan of the so-called “jukebox” musical, where performers mimic stars of days gone by, with commentaries about the star’s life and times sandwiched between songs. (I may be the only person who found the book of “Jersey Boys” insufferable). “A Night with Janis Joplin” wisely concentrates on paying tribute to Joplin’s musical inspirations, avoiding the sad tale of her descent into alcohol and drugs and ultimate death by overdose at the age of 27. (For some reason, there is no mention of her historic performances at Woodstock or the Monterey Pop Festival).

Trivia: Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970 at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, CA (43 years ago today, as I write this). Jimi Hendrix had died 16 days earlier, also at the age of 27. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

Should you go? That depends on two things: how much you care about Janis Joplin, and where you sit in the theatre. Love Janis? Love the music? You’ll get your money’s worth. I should note that my companion and I sat in the poorly air conditioned mezzanine for Act I, then moved to the second row center of the Orchestra for Act II. Being closer to the performers definitely enhanced the feeling of immediacy for us.

The show is available on TKTS at 40% off. It is also intermittently listed on TDF’s Website, if you’re a member.

But if you don’t see it, that’s OK too. Go on YouTube and check out the real thing.