It’s very difficult to assess Big Fish on any consumer advocacy level because its content will hit different people different ways. Based on the noel by Daniel Wallace and subsequent screenplay by John August (who also wrote the musical’s book), it tells the story of a young thirtyish son (Bobby Steggert) trying to come to grips with the parental image presented him by his now-dying father (Norbert Leo Butz), a traveling salesman who seemed mostly to bring home tall tales of impossible adventures with mythical creatures, in which he was always the hero, and in particular the hero who used resourcefulness to turn potential enemies into allies; stories that also seem to hide the actual man and the actual life lived. The structure is unusual for a musical, as it’s episodic, but because it rarely veers from the perspectives of son and father, and because the son’s desire for a greater truth remains a goal if not exactly a quest, it somehow manages to maintain focus without narrative sprawl, though here and there lies a brief lull in dramatic tension between episodes. It’s extremely well acted and sung by the cast (also including Kate Baldwin as the mother, Krystal Joy Brown as the son’s fiancé and Ryan Andes, Ben Crawford and Brad Oscar as various nemeses who become allies) and the direction and choreography by Susan Stroman (aided by eye-catching and projection-heavy production design) is appropriately inventive for a storytelling universe that ventures into high fantasy.
And for some that will be enough.
The controversial element is the score, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. As with a lot of Mr. Lippa’s work that’s attached to underlying properties, his songs tend less to dramatize than to spin close-to-generic, facile ruminations on related subject matter. One might argue that the plain speaking of simple folk dictates such an approach, but that same intention never kept Oscar Hammerstein III from realizing plain speaking with originality and diction that was his alone. Musically, as well, it’s all very attractive and all terribly familiar. With perhaps one exception (a ballad for the mother to sing to the dying father in Act Two), number after number lands to only-dutiful applause; not pale or tepid applause, I hasten to add, but lacking in the enthusiasm that says unequivocally that a song has hit home with resonant impact; and that’s because little is illuminated that we don’t already know, thus the songs convey a certain agreeable/appropriate energy without offering wonder and discovery.
Yet for some the show as a whole lands with a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts conclusion, because in this context, heart and sentiment go a long way. If you should be one of those, or think you may, Big Fish is certainly worth a try. And it will probably move you. The missed opportunity is: given the story’s potential, it should rock you…
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