Burn the Phony Dream

Big Fish is about what you would expect it to be: it is diverting, colorful, and it goes down easy.  If it is slightly disappointing, it is because quite a lot of talent has come together to produce this underwhelming musical, from director Susan Stroman (The Producers) to star Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can).  The book by John August is decent if predictable and the music by Andrew Lippa is inoffensive and forgettable when listened to in a Broadway theater but slightly embarrassing if replayed later.  “Fight the Dragons,” for example, features the cringe-inducing rhyme, “I’ve always been a man who said that staying still was playing dead / The kind who’s looking forward to the challenges ahead,” and the anthem-refrain, “I fight the dragons and I storm the castles and I win the battle for two / Then comes the day it’s time I’m packing up and I am bringing all my stories home to you.”

The man who sings these lines, Edward Bloom (Mr. Butz), is a traveling salesman and a compulsive embellisher whose autobiography features witches, mermaids, giants, and werewolves.  His son, Will (Bobby Steggert), has been sick of these stories since early childhood, and on the eve of Edward’s death, he tries to uncover the facts; though he knows his father is not the hero he pretends to be, Will begins to suspect that he may have invented his fairy tales to hide his adultery.  The result is a kind of candy-colored Death of a Salesman, one in which Willy Loman’s pathological lying is validated by the childlike awe it inspires in others.

But pathological lying it remains, and there is always the creeping sense that Edward Bloom’s incessant need to impress and please comes from a sickness—how would you react, for example, if a middle-aged man told you, without a wink or a nudge, that his first boss was a closeted werewolf and his best friend was a giant named Karl?  This kind of stuff may be amusing for the kids, but when an adult cannot admit that his life is slightly banal, there is something truly wrong.  This isn’t just, as the title suggests, a variation on the fisherman who lies about the size of the fish he catches.

Mr. Butz does what he can with the material and he manages to succeed in making Edward an endearing character.  There is something genuinely verisimilar in his transitions from a cap-wearing teenager to a balding man to a hand-shaking senior—transitions that would no doubt be clumsily handled by most actors.  Kate Baldwin, as Edward’s wife Sandra, is also quite good, even though she is expected to treat her husband’s psychosis with head-shaking exasperation instead of legitimate concern.  But there is something off-putting about Mr. Steggart, who can never shake the facial expression of the cat who got the cream—a nauseating look for a character whose main narrative purpose is to ruin everyone else’s fun.

The sets, as would be expected, are impressive, though not magnificent in the way Big Fish requires; for example, the freezing of time when Edward first spots Sandra (the most breathtaking sequence in Tim Burton’s film version of the novel) is obviously a challenge without the special effects available to a movie director, but the solution of simply slowing down time so that the actors move at one eighth speed seems something of a copout.

Ultimately, this is an unimposing and occasionally cute musical, but with such heavy hitting works as Betrayal and No Man’s Land coming up, I can’t imagine that it is worth Broadway prices.

Big Fish runs through December 29th at the Neil Simon Theatre.  250 W. 52nd Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 30 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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