Big Fish; Big Hit

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When adapting a film for the stage, it is always a creative fine line of balancing viewer expectations. In most aspects Big Fish, the latest film to stage adaptation which had its official pre-Broadway opening last night at the Oriental Theatre, succeeds in its transition. In fact there are many times the musical even soars beyond expectations.

For those living under a lake (pun intended), Big Fish was first penned by Daniel Wallace in 1998 then made into a 2003 feature film directed by Tim Burton, featuring Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup and Jessica Lange. The movie has garnered a cult-like status amongst its most ardent fans and I dare anyone to get through the film without going through half a box of Kleenex. The story shifts between fantasy and reality as a son tries desperately to understand the true nature of his dying father after a lifetime of being told larger than life stories.

Big Fish has what we can refer to as the creative “dream team”. Director Susan Stroman (the natural choice for a project for this nature) is paired with composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa (Addams Family) and surrounded by one of the most talented casts assembled since The Producers, headed by Norbert Leo Butz. Add to that a book by John August who also wrote the film adaptation and Julian Crouch’s gorgeous scenic designs, and you have the ingredients for a one of a kind theatrical experience.

Where the musical succeeds is in its integrity and truth. Shifting between fantasy and reality is a no brainer for the cinematic form. However, that proves much more difficult in a theatrical setting. Not because of the special effects but because of the relationships that have to be developed first between the stage actor and the audience. Big Fish as a theatre piece is not unique in using this format.  Man of La Mancha installs the same storytelling method, though in a much reduced setting.  It is that shifting between fantasy and reality that still needs development in Big Fish.

Unlike the film where the father, Edward Bloom, is played by two actors (Finney for the older reality sequences & McGregor for the fantasy), Mr. Leo Butz is tasked with handling both; and for good reason. It would be impossible for the audience to build a relationship with two different actors and expect the same emotional return. The problem herein with the stage production is that it almost instantly takes the audience into a fantasy/story sequence without having established the initial relationships between the characters. This is probably a non-issue for those who have seen the film but it certainly will be difficult for those coming into the musical “cold” to follow what is transpiring in the first 20 minutes. This, however, ‘order cialis online is an easily fixable problem for this mega talented team, but one that needs to be addressed before moving to the Neil Simon Theatre in October.

For the most part, this is a musical in great shape for a Broadway transfer. Mr. Lippa has created a musical tapestry that fits the grandness and intimate human nature of Big Fish perfectly. If fact, Mr. Lippa has created one of the best musical theatre songs in many years with “Fight The Dragon”. Ms. Stroman also proves why she is so unique and respected in the industry. Her vision shines through her actors in every scene. I had the privilege of watching Ms. Stroman rehearse her actors a few times while The Producers was trying out  in Chicago a few years back. Observing her communicate a vision to the actors and the actors then interpreting that vision is unique. That is again the case for Big Fish.

For the cast, well, it doesn’t get any better then Mr. Butz who is undoubtly the best male musical theatre actor working today. Norbert is natural, likeable and innately relatable which is what Edward Bloom is all about. Add to that the sensational Kate Baldwin as his life long love and the complex Bobby Steggert (reason enough to see this show) as his son longing for the truth that by the time the final scene comes along, you know you have seen the acting form at its finest.

What becomes of Big Fish’s future is largely out of the hands of the creative team and more of a function of the marketers.  Yes, Big Fish certainly has its followers but not enough to make the show a long-term Broadway box office smash. Thus it will be with the how the show is marketed to the masses along with word of mouth, that will ultimately foretell the ending.

But, if I had a crystal ball like the witch in Edward’s first foreshadowing tale, I would say……”Hello Tony Award!!”

Big Fish runs through May 5, 2013 at the Ford Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago. For more information visit . For calendar information visit