Review: Broadway-bound musical 'Big Fish' in Chicago

April 30, 2013
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The Tony Award nominations were announced today but, since I haven’t made a Broadway trek this season, I can’t talk with much knowledge about the qualitative difference between the musicals “Kinky Boots” and “Matilda,” or the performance of Tom Hanks in “Lucky Guy” vs. Nathan Lane in “The Nance.”

I can, however, look ahead and say that, for next year, I’m already rooting for “Big Fish,” the new musical heading for an October Broadway opening. Along with a busload of Indianapolis folks, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the most recent IBJ A&E Road Trip to Chicago, where it is playing through May 5.

Musicals, even if based on established material (in this case, the book and film of the same name), are brutally difficult to create. It’s not just a matter of finding engaging material and inserting a trunk-load of songs. The show itself has to have a reason to sing.

“Big Fish,” which tells the story of a tall-tale-telling father and the son who wants to know the truth about his life, has that in a big way. Edward Bloom’s stories are designed, by the charming egotist himself, to be showstoppers, making their presentation as songs comfortable. The emotional strengths of the story--a son’s inability to connect to his father, a man whose love for his wife leads to a deep secret—also resonate when given effective songs to carry the feelings.

But while tissues should be at the ready, “Big Fish” is no maudlin musical exercise. Will’s stories also lend themselves to fantasy sequences—a witch, a giant, a mermaid, a werewolf and, of course, a very big fish each is part of the action—giving plenty of room for theatrical magic … and dancing.

Commenting on a pre-Broadway run is really taking a snapshot of a work in progress. Opening-night reviewers in Chicago saw a show that’s different from the one I saw on April 2,7 which is different in some ways from the one you’ll see if you can make it to Chicago before the show closes. And that will be different from the one I hope to see again when it opens in New York. Tweaks, I’m told, are being made daily as the show is honed. But what was there on the 27th seems to me just about Broadway-ready. The show couldn’t ask for a better lead than the multi-talented, two-time Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz. Bobby Steggert is solid in the less-showy role of son Will. And Kate Baldwin is in stunning voice as Edward’s wife, Sandra, although the supporting part gets perhaps a bit too much stage time. This is a father/son story and the show is weaker when it forgets that.

Fans of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s Yuletide Celebration should get a kick out of seeing last year’s co-host, Ben Crawford, in a bad-guy/goofball role.

The score by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family,” “The Wild Party”) is catchy and often beautiful. I’m not a big believer in hummability-after-first-hearing being a primary way to determine if a score works, but I will say that I still have the tune for “Time Stops” in my head four days later. And I’m looking forward to a cast recording.

With work still being done, it’s tempting to play script doctor, and our bus ride back from Chicago was filled not only with enthusiasm for the show we saw but also with suggestions for making it even stronger. For me, that would mean reconsidering the second act fantasy sequences, which aren’t as fun or impressive as those in the first. Of course, it would be tough to beat the amazing visuals that go with the witch scene. I'll say no more about that.

The ending—which, for me, had the emotional power that the film version tried for but didn’t achieve—could use a little tightening (but not much). And surely a way can be found to make circus owner Amos (an underserved Brad Oscar) as fun and interesting as giant Karl (a charming Ryan Andes).

But, again, that’s tinkering. “Big Fish” is filled with wonders swirling around a core story that doesn’t feel like a carbon copy of any other show. It has its own theatrical voice. And it sings. That, to me, is a successful musical.

Bonuses on this IBj A&E Road Trip included a meet-and-greet Q&A session after the show with a trio of cast members, prize giveaways on the bus, and a preview of the next trip by virtue of a chat with the Goodman Theatre's casting director about its upcoming world premiere of "The Jungle Book." We're going in July. Want to join us? Information here

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  1. Cramer agrees...says don't buy it and sell it if you own it! Their "pay to play" cost is this issue. As long as they charge customers, they never will attain the critical mass needed to be a successful on company...Jim Cramer quote.

  2. My responses to some of the comments would include the following: 1. Our offer which included the forgiveness of debt (this is an immediate forgiveness and is not "spread over many years")represents debt that due to a reduction of interest rates in the economy arguably represents consideration together with the cash component of our offer that exceeds the $2.1 million apparently offered by another party. 2. The previous $2.1 million cash offer that was turned down by the CRC would have netted the CRC substantially less than $2.1 million. As a result even in hindsight the CRC was wise in turning down that offer. 3. With regard to "concerned Carmelite's" discussion of the previous financing Pedcor gave up $16.5 million in City debt in addition to the conveyance of the garage (appraised at $13 million)in exchange for the $22.5 million cash and debt obligations. The local media never discussed the $16.5 million in debt that we gave up which would show that we gave $29.5 million in value for the $23.5 million. 4.Pedcor would have been much happier if Brian was still operating his Deli and only made this offer as we believe that we can redevelop the building into something that will be better for the City and City Center where both Pedcor the citizens of Carmel have a large investment. Bruce Cordingley, President, Pedcor

  3. I've been looking for news on Corner Bakery, too, but there doesn't seem to be any info out there. I prefer them over Panera and Paradise so can't wait to see where they'll be!

  4. WGN actually is two channels: 1. WGN Chicago, seen only in Chicago (and parts of Canada) - this station is one of the flagship CW affiliates. 2. WGN America - a nationwide cable channel that doesn't carry any CW programming, and doesn't have local affiliates. (In addition, as WGN is owned by Tribune, just like WTTV, WTTK, and WXIN, I can't imagine they would do anything to help WISH.) In Indianapolis, CW programming is already seen on WTTV 4 and WTTK 29, and when CBS takes over those stations' main channels, the CW will move to a sub channel, such as 4.2 or 4.3 and 29.2 or 29.3. TBS is only a cable channel these days and does not affiliate with local stations. WISH could move the MyNetwork affiliation from WNDY 23 to WISH 8, but I am beginning to think they may prefer to put together their own lineup of syndicated programming instead. While much of it would be "reruns" from broadcast or cable, that's pretty much what the MyNetwork does these days anyway. So since WISH has the choice, they may want to customize their lineup by choosing programs that they feel will garner better ratings in this market.

  5. The Pedcor debt is from the CRC paying ~$23M for the Pedcor's parking garage at City Center that is apprased at $13M. Why did we pay over the top money for a private businesses parking? What did we get out of it? Pedcor got free parking for their apartment and business tenants. Pedcor now gets another building for free that taxpayers have ~$3M tied up in. This is NOT a win win for taxpayers. It is just a win for Pedcor who contributes heavily to the Friends of Jim Brainard. The campaign reports are on the Hamilton County website. http://www2.hamiltoncounty.in.gov/publicdocs/Campaign%20Finance%20Images/defaultfiles.asp?ARG1=Campaign Finance Images&ARG2=/Brainard, Jim

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