If you're going to create a musical about the magic of storytelling, you had better have some genuine magic on display, either in the piece itself, or in the presentation. Unfortunately, the new Broadway musical Big Fish has neither.
I'm sure the various pieces seemed promising. The 2003 film "Big Fish" wasn't a huge hit, but it has become a sentimental favorite in certain circles. The producers of the stage version were able to score Susan Stroman as director/choreographer, and these days that's more than enough for a show to get the green light. However, as Young Frankenstein proved all too well, the talented Ms. Stroman is hardly infallible.
The main problem with Big Fish is that the tone for the show is way off, almost throughout the entire production. The story is essentially about a father and son. The father, the proverbial traveling salesman, is a spinner of tall tales, and the son has built up a lot of resentment against the father, both for the elder's frequent absences, and for what appears to be an inveterate knack for stretching the truth and living in a fantasy world.
For the story of Big Fish to genuinely work, we need to almost believe that the father's wild stories are true. And I didn't. Not for one bit, despite some unconvincing touches toward the end of the show that are meant to instill doubt into the minds of the nonbelievers. As is so often the case with these big-budget movie adaptations, you can feel the strain in Big Fish, the conscious effort to make the show irrepressibly charming.
Lost amid the sweat are three of New York theater's most reliable and appealing performers: Norbert Leo Butz as the father, Edward Bloom, Bobby Steggert as his son, Will, and the lovely Kate Baldwin, wasted here as Edward's wife, Sandra, a character with no discernible characteristics. She's just the stock loving and understanding wife, who says to her son, "There's magic in the man, please find it while you can." Butz and Steggart are given a little more substance to work with, but everyone is left adrift with an aimless, meandering book, and a bland, pedestrian score.
The music and lyrics for Big Fish are by Andrew Lippa, and while they certainly represent an improvement over his work on The Addams Family...well, it would be hard to imagine anything that wouldn't be an improvement over the tepid, characterless songs he churned out for that monstrosity. Lippa's work on Big Fish only occasionally rises above the serviceable.
Much of the problem with Big Fish seems to arise from the fact that the libretto has been written by the screenwriter for the 2003 movie, one John August. As far as I can discern, Mr. August has no previous experience in musical theater, and it shows. The book for Big Fish is thin and episodic, with no sense of build. What's worse, August seems to have no concept of how to write a workable musical.
For instance, at the end of act one, Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin make a rather awkward move together to the apron of the stage, while the traveler comes down behind them. Later it becomes clear that the only reason this occurs is so the stagehands can change the set for the act one finale. Um...really? A scene-in-one? That hoary and clumsy theatrical device that was outmoded and obsolete some 60 years ago? This is what we get when Hollywood screenwriters -- or anyone else, for that matter -- decide they can write musicals with no experience. Musical theater is a craft, folks, not a hobby.
The story contains numerous plot threads that never get woven back into the fabric of the piece. There's the witch who, early in the musical, shows Edward how he will die, but I'll be damned if I can remember how this element came to fruition at the end of the show. There's the circus owner who turns out to be a werewolf, a fact that the story never really returns to. Most problematic is the supposed tension that arises when the son discovers that the father has cosigned the mortgage on a house with his high-school sweetheart, who significantly is not the woman the father is married to. The big dramatic reveal on this plot point is neither dramatic nor revealing.
I must admit that the last ten minutes of Big Fish almost make the entire journey worthwhile. Suddenly the writing becomes nuanced, the characters real, the stakes of the drama palpable. If the entire show were as strong, as moving, as...well...magical as the very end of the show, we'd have an instant classic on our hands. Unfortunately, we have to wade through a lot of aimless and unfocused business before we get to that payoff, and it really feels like too little, too late.