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A CurtainUp Review
Based on the original 1988 novel Big Fish by Daniel Wallace, John August has based the show's libretto on his original screenplay for the 2003 film. The musical version, however, is a lot more whimsical in its conception than the film, notably in ways that can only be conjured up through the magic of live theater.
Moving forward and backward in time, Big Fish is set in the South, mainly Alabama, where traveling salesman Edward Bloom (Butz) has made his home with his adoring and beautiful wife Sandra (Kate Baldwin) and his son Will (Bobby Steggert as the older Will and with his younger self portrayed by a spunky Zackary Ungart,whom I saw) and by Anthony Pierini at the matinees).
The story of a father who cannot restrain himself from wildly embellishing the truth is one in which you want to believe, whether you are a fan of the film or not. Using his own ho-hum travels through life as a springboard, Edward, without any apologies for exaggeration, relates them to his doubtful and disapproving young son.
As foretold to him by a witch (Ciarra Renee), the illness that is claiming Edward's life empowers Will to try and get to the bottom of some of the secrets his father has kept from him. In the first scene, Will, about to be married to the daughter (Krystal Joy Brown) of a doctor whom he met while in the foreign service, earnestly requests Edward to not tell any stories or make any jokes at the wedding reception. This suggestion is of course not taken seriously by Edward either at the wedding or for the rest of the show. That it is a bi-racial marriage (not so in the film) ceremony in a small Alabama town suggests that Will has been substantially impacted by his father's ability to step outside the box.
The story then moves backward in time to the bedroom of young Will where Edward regales him with some of his incredible adventures on the road. Stories such as the one about his life-long friendship with Karl, a misunderstood and reclusive giant (a bigger than life performance by Ryan Andes) for whom he finds work in a circus, may lack credibility — but they are all calculated to reinforce Edward's "Be a Hero" message to his son. All make us privy to the heroics that have become the defining course and the meaningful essence of this untypical father's life.
Designer Julian Crouch frames all the action by reconfiguring wooden slats through which various locations appear quite astonishingly through special effects and illusions, the latter often in the breathtaking costumes by (who else?) William Ivey Long. A scene in the woods, in which Will is confronted by the witch and surrounded by trees that are transformed into a corps of whirling black winged minions is breathtaking.
What is usually the orchestra pit has been transformed into a river, wherein splashes a gorgeous mermaid (Sarrah Strimel). I won't spoil the surprise location for the orchestra except to say that the revelation earned applause.
Imagination is never in short supply as in Edward's lengthy detour of working in a circus under a dubious contract with a wily ring master (Brad Oscar). It is here where Edward first gazes upon the winsome young Sandra as she is auditions with a delightful little ditty ("Little Lamb from Alabama").
In favorite episode Edward is in pursuit of a spy who is hiding out in a USO show that features a bevy of tap-dancing chorines in red, white and blue. Though there are a number of digressions from the film, the musical version remains true to its theme: we are the substance of our stories real or imagined.
It's a treat it is to see the multi-talented Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrals, Catch Me If You Can) not only make the quick transitions from his robust younger to his older self, but also dive with awesome grace into the derring-do and the dancing. His amazing grace and good singing support two plaintive duets with Baldwin ("Time Stops" and "Daffodils").
Tony nominated Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow) is not only beautiful but gives a stirring, heart-felt performance as the wise and conciliatory mediator between the men whom she loves. Steggert is hugely affecting as the young man who will undoubtedly follow, perhaps a little more gently, in the path of the some very big footsteps.
Whether it's the little fish that fly out the river water when Edward casts a spell (an occasion for a rousing dance) for the locals, or the really big one that. . .oops, that's telling too much about this endearing new family musical. Despite a tad long and sad denouement that is sure to evoke tears from the receptive, the ending will certainly send you out with a smile.