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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