There is this moment in Big Fish: The Musical that’s really helpful for people who can’t think and who don’t like musicals, theater, or humanity. It’s the moment about half-way through the first act, when young Will Bloom and his fiancé Josephine find some family files pertaining to the elder Mr. Bloom, Will’s father Edward.
The pair, played gamely by Bobby Steggert and Krystal Joy Brown, stand there, and they look at each other, and they recap the entire first act. The dialogue goes something like this:
Will: So, my Dad loves to tell these crazy stories!
Josephine: I know, but they all have so much symbolic meaning!
Will: I know, they’re so convenient that way.
Josephine: For example, the story he tells about making friends with a giant. That’s about overcoming adversity!
The rest of Big Fish continues accordingly, wherein the characters tell you exactly how they feel about things, and in fact, exactly how you are supposed to feel about these things too. If you can get through the above scene and think, “Wow, that’s so useful and illuminating! I’m so glad these characters explained everything to me!” then you will probably love Big Fish. Love. Go buy yourself 15 sets of tickets, pick up a t-shirt in the lobby, and hang out at the stage door so you can tell Norbert Leo Butz to keep being in awesome Broadway shows because his track record is killing it right now.
If the above kind of made you want to flog yourself with chains, and made you miss Jerusalem, gritty British playwriting, your soul, and Mark Rylance even though he’s already here, then you might want to skip this one.
You also might want to skip every musical that Susan Stroman has ever made besides The Scottsboro Boys, because that was clearly a fluke of brilliant, gritty madness amidst an ocean of mugging, spangles, and really literal, hand-hold-y storytelling. Because here’s the thing: I love a classic, dance-y musical. But I’m pretty sure that Susan Stroman has never found a moment of quiet onstage subtlety that she couldn’t trounce with a herd of bespangled, high-kicking showgirls singing a patriotic song.
Such is the case with Big Fish, a musical about a guy who tells crazy stories his whole life, to the extent that even his family isn’t sure what’s true. Played by Norbert Leo Butz, who is again working his ass off to rescue subpar material, Edward tells his life story in flashback – his version of the story, that is. Thus we are treated (?) to witches, a mermaid, and yes – God help him – a giant. We are also bombarded with projections, dancing, swoopy costumes, an onstage lake, rave-style lighting circa 1994, and (I think) some fire. It’s all gorgeous. And empty. In a show that’s utterly free of subtext, it all reads as a goopy soap opera. An endless goopy soap opera. With approximately 4000 songs by Andrew Lippa — all of them competing with 4000 similarly themed Frank Wildhorn Songs in the 2014 Dizzyingly Bland Musical Songwriter Olympics — the show’s ending alone takes about 45 minutes unto itself. And just when you thought that the onstage developments (hint: they’re pretty dire) could not possibly lend themselves to another song… there’s another song. And also, another one. And then a singing curtain call.
It’s not the cast’s fault. Norbert is as charming and forceful as ever – even though his southern accent feels more like South Jersey at times. And Kate Baldwin in particular manages to wrench a genuine sense of longing and loss out of her role as Edward’s long-suffering wife. They’re both great at telling stories. If only they had a more nuanced one to tell.
Photo: Paul Kolnik