Broadway’s Big Fish: Small Potatoes

To see what went wrong with Susan Stroman’s new musical, you have to go back to the source

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Paul Kolnik / The Hartman Group / AP Photo

Norbert Leo Butz, left, Zachary Unger, center, Sarrah Strimel and company in "Big Fish," at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York

It’s not hard to see what attracted director-choreographer Susan Stroman and her creative team to Big Fish, the new musical that has just opened on Broadway after a praised tryout run in Chicago last season. The show is based on the 2003 Tim Burton film (itself an adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel) about a father and son who have a rift over Dad’s penchant for spinning tall tales of his colorful (but almost certainly fictitious) life. The fanciful stories, seen in flashback, involve witches and giants and mermaids, small-town pep rallies and a traveling circus whose ringmaster is a werewolf. This gives the talented Stroman (The Producers) plenty of opportunity to fill the stage with splashy production numbers, along with a father-son story designed to tug at the heartstrings.

In general I don’t think it’s fair to compare stage works to the movies from which (more and more often these days) they are adapted. A musical or play should be judged on whether it works onstage — not on how well or poorly it reproduces the source material that inspired it. But Big Fish left me so unmoved that I went back to watch the Tim Burton film (which I had never seen), to see if I could figure out what went awry.

Lots, it turns out. The movie is a characteristic Burton mix of whimsy, dark fantasy and sentimentality, but with more emotional sincerity and depth than some of his work. Edward Bloom is a dreamer who invents his own life story, and one can perfectly understand why such a dad would enthrall his young son, but drive a grown-up one nearly batty. Yet we need to love Edward, for all his faults, to really feel the pain of the father-son conflict and appreciate their ultimate reconciliation.

Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Edward, is a good Broadway song-and-dance man, but he’s more comfortable playing cynical rascals (a Tony winner for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) than a charming, almost mystical innocent. Two actors divided the role in the film — Ewan MacGregor as young Edward, Albert Finney as his older self — and together they created a more coherent and engaging character than Butz, who doesn’t have the range or the emotional openness to win us over.

The script doesn’t help — even though it’s from the same screenwriter, John August, responsible for the movie. There’s more emphasis on conventional psychology in explaining the father-son problems: Edward’s  son Will (Bobby Steggert) complains that Dad was on the road too much and didn’t spend enough time with him growing up (beside the point in the movie). There’s a crippling misstep right at the start, in the big blowup at Will’s wedding. In the movie, Will pleads for his Dad not to bore the guests with his endless stories; Edward does so anyway — because he can’t help it. In the musical, Will warns his Dad not to break the news that his bride-to-be is pregnant.  Dad blurts it out callously. The first seems plausible, sadly inevitable; the second merely cruel and insensitive. Our sympathy for the character never quite recovers.

Sorry for the nitpicking, but little decisions like that are what keep the audience at a distance from this otherwise spiffy display of Stroman’s choreographic gifts (especially in the circus scenes), some ingenious sets and costuming (witches transforming into trees) and pretty digital rear-projections (a field full of yellow daffodils). Andrew Lippa’s score is best in the lively period numbers — foot-stomping country-Western, brassy big-top oompah, USO-camp-show jitterbugging. The ballads, on the other hand, are predictably and blandly uplifting: “Be the hero” of your story, we’re urged, practically before the stories have even started.

The film has a mise-en-scene that the musical can’t come close to matching: the witches are scarier, the giant more poignant, the scenes of Norman Rockwell small town life both sweeter and more sardonic. (Spectre, the idysllic hidden town that Edward stumbles into, is just one lovely anecdote that has been junked.) For all its big ambitions and a few small pleasures, the show is a cold fish.