"Big Fish" (Broadway in Chicago): Not Quite a Keeper

"Big Fish" (Broadway in Chicago):  Not Quite a Keeper

Broadway in Chicago presents the pre-Broadway World Premiere of the new musical, BIG FISH.

Let’s start at the end. The last thirty minutes tenderly showcases the stories making up one man’s life.  The pre-finale is a sweet revisit of characters that Norbert Leo Butz (Ed Bloom) danced and sang with in his early years, also known as Act 1.  The reunion has the right amount of schmaltz with Butz reconnecting with loved ones.  Butz and Bobby Steggert (Will) bond over the song “What’s Next.”  The contrite Steggert finally becomes his father’s son and starts telling colorful tales.  The connectivity is a lovely ending to a long fishing trip.

When asked what they enjoyed about the 2003 film “Big Fish,” most will say the cinematography was gorgeous.  The whole movie depicts Ed Bloom’s grandiosity in technicolor whimsy.  The stage version loses that magical other-world element.  Sure, they cheat a little by using projected imagery like in the daffodil scene.  The illusion doesn’t have the same impact. In the movie, the flowers are an endless, lush field. On stage, we see some sprouts come up from the boards and the fake flower field behind it.  It’s the difference between a 3-D movie and a slide show.  I will say I was impressed by ‘the river.’  Draped over the orchestra pit (don’t worry the band is onstage), flowing silks are illuminated for an ever-present dreamy look.

Transitioning a movie to stage is a difficult task.  Not only is there competition with the Hollywood special effects, there is also the viewers‘ expectations.  There is a big margin for disappointment.  Despite enlisting the movie’s screenwriter John August to write the book for the musical, the story is stilted.  The first scene plunges right into the mythical life of Ed Bloom.  For people who haven’t seen the movie, it might be a confusing leap. Without additional exposition, novices will be lost at the river’s edge.  For fans of the movie, the high-energy animation of the “The God’s Honest Truth” is a set-up for a let-down.  The rest of Act 1 is a drowsy hodge-podge of piecing together Ed Bloom’s life. The music by Andrew Lippa adds the audio for dull.  The tunes and the lyrics are easily forgettable.

Two of my favorite things about BIG FISH are the witch’s scene and Kate Baldwin (Sandra).  I absolutely loved these bark-like capes by Costume Designer William Ivey Long.  In the witch scene, Choreographer Susan Stroman has the dancers peel off from the trees.  The witch visual has this enchanted forest flourish.  So cool!

And speaking of sorcery, the exquisite Baldwin adds the emotional depth to this show.  We watch her grow old gracefully from showgirl to matriarch.  Despite the silly lyrics of ‘I don’t need a roof.’ when Baldwin sings the words, the song suddenly seems like a profound love declaration.  Baldwin is the big fish in this pond.

Running Time:  Two hours and forty minutes includes an intermission

At Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Based on “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” by Daniel Wallace

and the 2003 film “Big Film” directed by Tim Burton with screenplay by John August

Book by John August

Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa

Musical direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell

Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman

Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 7:30pm

Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm

Wednesdays and Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm

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