Feature

Big Fish

The star of this new Broadway musical is a big fish swimming in a pond that seems to shrink before our eyes.

Neil Simon Theatre, New York City
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**

The star of this new Broadway musical is a big fish swimming in a pond that seems to shrink before our eyes, said Scott Brown in New York magazine. As Edward Bloom, an aging traveling salesman who spins wildly exaggerated yarns about his life, Norbert Leo Butz proves incapable again of delivering a single “less-than-electric” moment onstage. “But the show built around him is a pulseless bore.” An adaptation of a novel that became a 2003 Tim Burton film, “it wants desperately to be liked” but manages to offer only “a desperate, sweaty simulacrum of likability.” Andrew Lippa’s cliché-ridden song lyrics are “liquid lead.” The music “stops the show every time—in the worst possible way.”

At least Lippa’s work has improved since 2010’s The Addams Family, said David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. Here, his music “freely mixes old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley with pop,” winning points for its eclecticism. And though I never felt at ease having to root for a willful fabulist living in a whitewashed 20th-century American South, the show can be a dazzling spectacle. Susan Stroman directs, and her “grasp of showmanship as an essential tool of storytelling is evident at every turn.” The production “conjures a vibrant storybook environment,” complete with daffodil fields, mermaids, giants, and the dancing rear ends of circus elephants.

Yet “for outlandish stories to seduce, you should never be able to separate the teller from the tale,” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Logic tells us that the “spectacular eye candy” we see onstage springs from Edward’s fertile imagination, but the visuals don’t feel that way. “Yes, there’s plenty of theatrical cleverness” in the way Stroman choreographs the big numbers, but “it’s as if some cosmic Florenz Ziegfeld is the one doing the arranging, not an everyman Walter Mitty from Dixie.” Big Fish seems intended to be a celebration of self-invention. But if so, why does Edward wind up seeming like just another extra?

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