“Big Fish” Takes Time to Get Interesting (caution, plot spoilers)

I attended a performance of “Big Fish,” the new musical show with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August, last night at the Neil Simon Theatre.  The big draw, of course, is to see Norbert Leo Butz doing his thing – big production numbers, dancing, etc.  But through the long first act, my impression was that this was a piece of fluff, all about the production numbers, with supporting stars Bobby Steggert and Kate Baldwin being wasted in roles that didn’t really call upon their many talents.

I changed my mind during the second act.  I found more drama and interesting themes emerging, gradually supplanting the production numbers and resulting in a show that, by its conclusion, was quite affecting.

Essentially, this is a story about the relationship of a man with his son, how the son as a youngster judges his father harshly as a confabulator, only to discover, after he grows up and his father lays dying, that in fact the man had substantive, heroic qualities about which he had not cared to speak.  The son comes to appreciate his father just as he loses him, but takes lessons in how to raise his own son, born shortly after the father’s death.  And both Steggert and Baldwin end up having much more to do in the second act.  By the end, although I still felt that Steggert, in particular, was not given enough material to work with here, the overall balance tipped in favor of the show.

Susan Stroman handled direction and choreography, and the individuals responsible for sets, lighting, costumes and sound did a great job, although I think Mr. Steggert could be miked just a bit louder to be heard over the orchestra.  Instead of putting the orchestra in a pit, it is arrayed behind a solid scrim at the back of the stage, so it is actually projecting much louder than a pit orchestra out into the auditorium — and there is the usual unfortunate Broadway amplification as well, so the singers need to be amped up to be heard.  One wonders how Broadway got along back before electric amplification – maybe people were just better listeners in the acoustic theater age.  I think they could play with the balances a bit more as the run progresses.

Would I recommend this show?  Yes, with the reservation that the first act is too long and the fluff goes on too long before it finally gets into some substance, but once it does it is really quite moving and involving.   Butz does some of his best acting when he’s lying in bed, portraying a man slowing fading away from cancer.

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