Very early in the new stage musical “Big Fish,” director Susan Stroman delivers a splashy ensemble number, “Be the Hero,” that effectively introduces us to many of the fantastical characters we know from Tim Burton‘s 2003 film version and the original novel by Daniel Wallace.
The difference, however, between seeing them onscreen or reading about these mythic figures is that when they’re forced to sing and dance right off the bat with no introduction, there’s a distinct feeling of the wrong kind of déjà vu. Is that Ariel from “The Little Mermaid”? One of the witches from “Wicked”? The circus ringmaster from “Pippin”? And the giant from “Shrek”? Suddenly, they’re not archetypes anymore but rather the stars of some “Best of Broadway” theme-park show.
Of course, we meet these characters again later in the musical, which opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre, when the son Will Bloom (Bobby Steggert) retells the tall tales of his father, Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) – the same tall tales that have somehow obfuscated Dad’s real past and prevented the son from knowing him. The problem is, neither Stroman’s staging nor Andrew Lippa’s songs expand upon or deepen our understanding of these stock Broadway figures.
Amidst the showbiz glitz and musical pastiche, Steggert and Butz (seguing seamlessly between the roles played onscreen by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney) wisely eschew the cartoons around them and do manage to resemble the human characters in Wallace’s novel. (Plus, they really look like father and son.)
Maybe Steggert and Butz’s sense of understatement rubbed off. Just when the generic bigness of the show appears to have engulfed the two male leads, Lippa surprises us with something quiet and exceedingly tender: a duet between Edward and his wife-to-be, Sandra (Kate Baldwin), whom he’s just met. Unlike all the manic circus acts (clowns, dancing elephants, acrobats, shooting cannons) surrounding it, the song “Time Stops,” does just that – it stops the show. It’s not easy writing a love-at-first-sight song, but Lippa pulls it off with brilliance.
And to prove that “Time Stops” is no fluke, in Act 2 Lippa provides another stunning, quiet song, “I Don’t Need a Roof,” gorgeously sung by Baldwin – only this time it’s not about young love but mature love as she cradles a dying husband in her arms. After the 100 percent pastiche of his “Addams Family” score, these songs represent a big step forward for Lippa.
John August, who wrote the screenplay for the Burton film, makes his Broadway debut with the “Big Fish” book. On both screen and stage, his major departure from the novel is that Will’s getting married and expecting a child. Since Dad is dying, August’s addition gives Will’s desire for the truth (a quest that Wallace keeps in the background) a sense of urgency.
It also turns poor Will into something of a chronic kvetcher, especially in the musical where he gets to sing about his angst. But frankly, what’s so awful about a man who tells his son great stories when most fathers nowadays send their kids off to play videogames alone?
August also makes the mistake of softening Edward. He’s no longer having a major affair with the woman who lives in the house he bought her; they’re just friends. (Yeah, right.) But if Edward isn’t leading a double life, what is Will’s problem, after all?