Director/choreographer Susan Stroman just keeps getting better! Her work on Big Fish means that this new musical is very rarely less than thoroughly engaging, and is often maginifcently entertaining. Big Fish centers on Edward Bloom (another tour de force performance from Norbert Leo Butz), a Southern traveling salesman who loves telling tall tales – all which seem to have at least a grain of truth about them. But his son Will, about to have a child of his own, really wants to know how true they are.
The underlying story is gripping, and Stroman tells it masterfully. You know you’re in for a wild ride from the first big number “Be the Hero”, but even that doesn’t prepare you for a sequence called “The Witch” which combines projections (Benajmin Pearcy for 59 Productions), costumes (William Ivey Long) and set (Julian Crouch) with Stroman’s choreography in truly innovative ways. But what makes this sequence truly remarkable is that it actually tells the story exceptionally well. This is not gratuitous spectacle, but spectacle thoughtfully used in the service of a story about magic and wonder.
Andrew Lippa delivers his best score to date, including lovely charm numbers like “Little Lamb from Alabama” and the gripping 11 o’clock number “How It Ends”, which Butz knocks out of the ballpark. However, Lippa still isn’t quite living up to the level of art of his collaborators, and it shows. For example, he just barely saves the saccharine ballad “I Don’t Need A Roof” with its emotionally raw final verse. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the score doesn’t get in the way. Much.
Big Fish is the season’s first really large-scale musical. While not perfect, for most of its running time it’s pretty satisfying in the way one expects from such shows. As such I recommend it, just not with my very highest recommendation.
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