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Nothing but fish stories in ‘Big Fish’

Maya Phillips | 10/10/2013, 3:21 p.m.
Norbert Leo Butz and Ciara Renee In "Big Fish" Paul Kolnik Photo

There’s more than one way to tell a story: One man’s goldfish is another man’s whale. That’s why “Big Fish,” the new Broadway musical of stories about witches, mermaids, werewolves, assassins, giants and a very big fish, teems with imagination, wonder and plenty of fishy tales.

The show explores the relationship between Will Bloom and his father, Edward Bloom. Will, a rational journalist, has never really seen eye-to-eye with his father, a former traveling salesman with a penchant for weaving extraordinary, fantastical tales about his life. As his father’s health starts to fail, Will tries to find out the truth behind the tales, all of which are brought to life in front of the audience’s eyes.

“Big Fish,” based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, was first translated to the big screen in 2003 by Tim Burton. The film version, which starred Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney and Billy Crudup, wasn’t the most commercially successful, but it garnered plenty of critical acclaim for the acting, the story and the unforgettably stunning cinematography. Thus, this musical had a lot to live up to.

While this production obviously could not make use of the same big-screen effects that Burton used to make his gothic fantasy, it certainly rolled out the best effects that can be expected from the Great White Way. A river with a resident mermaid moves along the pit in front of the stage, and we’re transported to caves, swamps, town squares and circuses, where trees, giants and elephants dance and an eclectic group of characters, led by Ed Bloom himself, do the “Alabama Stomp.” Visually, the show draws the eye with all of its color, movement and effects.

As Edward Bloom, Norbert Leo Butz takes command of the stage with the right amount of energy and excitement to bring these tales alive, while Bobby Steggert (Will Bloom) counters him as his cynical, imagination-deficient son. Even Zachary Unger, who plays the younger and equally pragmatic version of Will in the flashbacks, provides a comically stark contrast to Butz’s Edward. Kate Baldwin, as Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife, acts as the strong, faithful wife and mother who stands in between two very different, very difficult men.

While Butz, Steggert, Baldwin and the rest of the cast have the vocal talents necessary to belt out the numbers, the musical element of the show still falls flat. The songs lack the charm, catchiness and bravado that are usually a given in Broadway musicals, making them instantly forgettable and ultimately dispensable to the show as a whole. Unfortunately, the lackluster music also tends to draw out the show, making it seem much longer than necessary—a definite problem in a show that, because of its narrative structure of multiple vignettes and its heavy focus on past events rather than immediate action, can show a propensity for a slower plot.

In the end, “Big Fish” turns out to be a solid Broadway show, mostly due to Wallace’s endearing story and characters and the stage effects. However, because of its bland musical numbers, the show really drags and becomes a middling alternative to the film, a secondary alternative that lacks the mystery and heart and indulges in superfluous, mediocre music. It looks like that in this story, the fish really isn’t as big as they’d like us to believe.