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Broadway’s BIG FISH, a tale of a fantasy life, to close in late December

Roy Berko

(American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

What do you do when your life doesn’t live up to your dreams?  If you are Walter Mitty or Hans Christian Anderson or Edward Bloom, you invent a fantasy life.  Mitty, of film fame, was a daydreamer who escaped his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of heroism, romance and action.  Anderson imagined fairy tales with lessons of virtue and resilience in the face of adversity.  Edward Bloom, the main character in BIG FISH, the John August (book) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) musical, spins a series of stories which may or may not be true.

Bloom, a traveling salesman, tells what may be tall tales for the amusement of his wife, son and friends.  All is well until his pragmatic son, Will, about to have a child of his own, challenges whether the stories are true.  His quest for reality forces him to look beyond the words and into what really did happen and determine whether his father is fact or fiction.

Questions abound.  How much of Bloom’s tales are real?  How much are fantasy?  Was he a high school football star?  Did he actually have an encounter with a witch?  Were the tales he told of confronting a giant true?  Did he travel with a circus?  Why was his name on a deed for a house purchased by his high school sweetheart?  Did he actually hatch a plan to save a town that was about to be submerged?  

Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 film, Broadway’s BIG FISH is filled with special effects, creative imagery, and delights in some ways and stumbles in others.

Susan Stroman’s direction is basically on target, but a bigger than life show needs much more flights of the imagination in actions and character creation.   Performers often seemed held back, too reserved.  BIG FISH is a fantasy.  To create that fantasy requires more pizzazz, more than just nice.

Norbert Leon Butz gives what will probably be a Tony nomination performance, but there were times when he was just too controlled.  His ability to spin a vivid tale was hampered, to a degree, by his reserved nature.

Ciara Renée, as the witch, displayed a fine singing voice, but was too restrained in her character development.  Having seen Renée, a recent graduate of Cleveland, Ohio’s Baldwin Wallace University’s top ranked Musical Theatre program, in numerous roles, I know she can control a stage.  That quality was somewhat missing here.

Zachary Unger as Young Will, Krystal Joy Brown as Josephine, Edward’s wife, and Bobby Steggert as Will Bloom were excellent in the more realistic roles.

The musical score carries the story along, but fails to have a show stopper song which allows the audience to leave humming its sounds long after the final curtain closes.  As with the rest of the show, the music was nice, not filled with the wonder of make-believe.

Following the trend of recent Broadway shows much of the setting and illusions are electronic projections.  Fields and fields of daffodils, a forest, a town and much of what is seen are Benjamin Pearcy’s creative illusionary designs.

The producers of BIG FISH have recently announced that the show will be closing on December 29, 2013.  It will have played 34 previews and 98 performances by the time it drops its final curtain.   There is still time to see it at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Capsule judgement:  BIG FISH is a pleasant show, which gets a pleasant production.  As a fantasy it needed more dynamics, more creativity in music as well as staging.  As is, it makes for a nice diversion from real life, but could have been so much more.