Norbert Leo Butz needs a show that will let him take flight. Ditto Bobby Steggert and Kate Baldwin. Their talents, skill and commitment are worth the price times twice. Big Fish, however, is not the vehicle for flying. On the contrary, this book and music keeps these three very much chained to the ground.
This is the story of a father, Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) who pulls tall tales out of the air like a magician. Why he does this and what he may be hiding is the question his son Will (Bobby Steggert) wants to know, especially since his father will be leaving the planet in pretty short order. Sandra Bloom, (Kate Baldwin) wife and mother, loves them both just the way they are. On the surface this is not a lot on which to hang a story, and dammit but if there is even less when you dig deeper.
The real story – the one that has movement and passion – is the story of Will who questions everything and wants a dad to just be present. Edward was on the road as Will was growing up, and he never lost his wanderlust. All he brought back to Will were stories of a witch, a giant, a werewolf, and a town that was too small to hold a Big Fish like him. Although it was mighty entertaining to his father, these stories left Will feeling neglected and alone. As he comes into his own life with a wife and baby due, he wants to find out the truth about Edward Bloom.
But in this production, all the fuss and fandango is given over to watching Edward’s stories take shape. Each story has its own musical number complete with transforming costumes and video projections that make your head spin. With each musical number Edward gets closer and closer to achieving hero status, but his son is never part of the picture. And because that element is missing, there is nothing to keep us engaged.
Except for the fact that Butz is a master of his craft - he is a one-man show all by himself, and to watch him sing and dance is a complete pleasure. As well, Kate Baldwin’s singing has achieved a certain maturity that brings out the soul in her character. Bobby Steggert’s voice is lyrical and transcendent which gives Will a depth that the book does not.
The rest of the cast is absolutely fantastic and the orchestration by Larry Hochman is noteworthy – giving prime time to strings and guitar that makes the music take on a romantic tone of great proportion.
As we arrive at the end of the story and Edward’s life, there is not a dry eye in the house, because this thin plot is wrapped in the tissue paper of personal heroism and the idea that being a Big Fish is only meaningful if you end your life surrounded by the friends you have made – with or without taking credit for your kindnesses. In the end Will learns that his father was a Big Fish indeed and passes on that knowledge along with old and new stories to a new generation.
The performances and the intent – to create a show about being a person who matters to other people – may be enough to carry this show right through the holiday season. There was what has become the obligatory standing ovation, because most folks don’t understand what they are doing, and because this show knows from heartstrings. It tries. It really tries.
I guess that is worth something. But still, I hate settling for okay when it could have been great.
"For a show that celebrates tall tales, 'Big Fish' feels curiously stunted."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"It hooks you, then loses you — all night. Fortunately, this show about fathers and sons and forgiveness has a saving grace in leading man Norbert Leo Butz."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Andrew Lippa’s score is a hack job stringing one banal non-tune after another."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"I enjoy big and colorful as much as anyone, but sometimes restraint works better."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"But magic – that strange, crazy, undefinable magic that gives a viewer the shivers and makes a musical memorable (or at least worth paying money to see) – somehow never materializes in the strangely ordinary new Broadway attraction."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"A lot of loving craftsmanship has gone into this musical, and it delivers satisfying entertainment for those who don’t mind being emotionally manipulated."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Shabby values aside, the show has its enchantments. These are largely the gifts of helmer-choreographer-magician Stroman, who brings genuine wit to her technically ingenious stagecraft."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...