‘Big Fish’ Is a Little Hard to Swallow

The world premiere show at the Oriental Theatre has plenty of eye candy, a lot of great songs, and a plot that’s just a little too contrived.

photo: paul kolnik   

Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin in Big Fish.  

Big Fish made its splashy, pre-Broadway world premiere earlier this month at the Oriental Theatre. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman knows as well as anyone how to paint a captivating stage picture, and indeed, Big Fish is filled with them. This is, after all, the story of a father whose colorful yarns involve mermaids, giants, witches, and a massive catfish so enormous it can (and does) swallow a whole riverbank’s worth of bystanders.

Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel (and the 2003 film of the same name), Big Fish offers plenty of innovative dance numbers and a pleasingly bouncy if not particularly memorable score by Andrew Lippa. It’s also got a winning leading man in Norbert Leo Butz as the tall-tale-telling Edward Bloom, and a warm, charismatic turn by Kate Baldwin as Edward’s loving wife Sandra.

But the supposed conflict that drives the piece—a father/son relationship fractured by the son’s anger at his father’s elaborate stories—never rings true.

Early on in Big Fish, we watch as the son, Will (Bobby Steggert), marries Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown), a gorgeous French woman. Shortly after the vows, young Will all but disavows his father. The elder Bloom’s crime? Making a toast that’s too colorful, too long-winded and to full of fanciful fabrication.

To say Will overreacts is an understatement. And to pin an entire show on the resolution of an overreaction makes for a conflict that seems contrived and a plot that, while packed with eye candy and pleasing production numbers, never has much at stake. Will’s ire is nothing so much as puzzling; a bit of mild exasperation would be understandable here. Anger enough to fuel years of estrangement seems totally out of left field.

If you can overlook that rather substantial shortcoming, Big Fish offers plenty of entertainment. Stroman’s choreography is as charming as it is innovative, from the illusory dancing trees in “I Know What You Want” to the retro tap-happy snappiness of “Red, White and True.”

The piece is also brightened by winning, cartoon-bright characters, most notably Karl the Giant (a literally towering Ryan Andes), a sassy swamp witch (Katie Thompson, bringing a delicious element of sass and sizzle to the crone) and a circus ringmaster/werewolf (Brad Oscar). Moreover, the production has a dazzling array of set and lighting effects (the former by Julian Crouch, the latter by Donald Holder). As the show winds on, we’re transported down the watery, colorful gullet of the titular fish, into an eye-popping field of sunny daffodils and backstage with a trio of dancing elephants at a circus.

But the heart and soul of Big Fish lies in Butz’s ebullient performance as the fabulist Edward Bloom. Butz’s has a natural, charismatic grace that makes the story-spinning father easy to empathize with. This is a fellow you’d want to have a beer (or three) with, a big-hearted charmer with a voice as winning as his personality.

As the truculent son Will, Steggert has a tougher task. From the wedding onward, you want to tell the kid to just lighten up for goodness’ sake. His dad’s gift for gab is hardly the sort of unforgivable flaw that renders families asunder for years.

The show is long on fantastical whimsy, short on credible conflict. It’s a good start—but Big Fish has some work to do if it’s going to hit it big in New York.

Through May 5 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph , 312-977-1700, $33 to $100.

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