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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Neil Simon


  Ryan Andes and company/ Ph: Paul Kolnik

Where would the musical be without dreamers? Those cock-eyed optimists who tunefully salute the inspirational, the mythical, the ideal – such folk epitomize the Great White Way. Without them there would be no “impossible dream,” no “lullaby of Broadway,” no “one day more” (otherwise known to plucky orphans as “tomorrow”). The cynical underside of the moony daydreamer is the schemer, the fast-talking fabulist we love to be conned by, from Harold Hill to Max Bialystock. Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) is a little of both. This Southern traveling salesman regales his son with tall tales about witches, werewolves, giants and mermaids. What Bloom gets out of such gothic yarn spinning isn’t clear. Fictive embellishment of the banality of his life? Or is he avoiding the messy emotional engagement of fatherhood? By the time his son Will (Bobby Steggart) reaches adulthood, his blarney-filled dad is a mystery to him. Will’s attempt to reconcile the two images of his father – soulful fabulist and folksy fool – forms the emotional arc of Big Fish. Ironically, for a show that valorizes the imagination, one spends most of the time fantasizing about Big Fish with a better composer-lyricist.
For although it has structural weaknesses in terms of book and characterization, the fatal flaw here is the lack of a memorable or moving score. Andrew Lippa’s melodies are simplistic and generic, setting earthbound, cloying lyrics. The issue is primarily one of tone: Lippa, book writer John August (adapting his screenplay for the 2003 Tim Burton movie) and director Susan Stroman can’t find the right frame for Edward’s stories to make them pop as wonderful and strange, thus offering a tonal shift from the more adult concerns of the rest of the story (Will and his wife expecting a baby, Edward dying of cancer). By the same token, Edward and Will’s father-son conflict is rendered with such diffidence and emotional vagueness that you never care about a rapprochement between them. Kate Baldwin gets a couple of forgettable ballads as Edward’s devoted, levelheaded wife.
Rising above the surface of musical mediocrity, the fiercely talented Butz does what he can to elevate the material. And for whole stretches of Big Fish you forget about how hackneyed the stakes are, savoring Butz’s exuberant swagger and aspirational zeal. In the act-one finale, “Daffodils” – during which the stage fills with those same flowers – Butz must sing a line that plays on his character’s surname and refers to the proliferation of flora. It’s an awfully cheesy, unnecessary lyric. Butz ought to have demanded a rewrite, but he sells it nonetheless.
So, with a bland score and performances that are strong but unable to save the show, we’re left with visuals. And those are the piece’s strongest suit: eye-popping interludes in which young Edward gets his fortune told by a sultry witch (Ciara Renée), befriends an antisocial but highly intelligent giant (Ryan Andes) and spends several years working in a circus for a werewolf ringmaster (Brad Oscar). William Ivey Long’s costumes run the gamut from folksy, small-town American to fairy-tale wraps for witches and giants. Julian Crouch’s set design combines charmingly cartoonish backdrops and skillful video projections. These fantasy sequences are, by necessity, prime moments of escape. But must the real world, to which children of all ages must eventually return, be so dull?
David Cote is theater editor of Time Out New York.


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