Caught Big Fish, and thought it an impressive set of set pieces that don’t hang together well enough to reel you in to a story.
That’s it for the puns this week: I promise.
It’s a story about a teller of tall tales, and also his son, a journalist – so, one must assume, a teller of true tales. The subject discussed so frequently here – storytelling – is therefore front and center. And it’s in this element where Big Fish crashes on the shoals. (Not another pun – I simply can’t find a better way of putting this.) As theatre-goers, sooner or later, we need to have some sense of why we’re seeing what we’re seeing. Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) can’t help mythologizing his life; he also has a penchant for corny jokes. These are imaginatively staged by Susan Stroman, and most are pretty diverting. They’re usually funny and fun. But why? – There’s the rub.
Big Fish could just as easily be a splashy revue called Southern Malarkey. But the flights of fancy are part of what seems to be a serious plot: a father and son with a somewhat strained relationship, life beginning, life ending. Sometime soon, we suspect, this narrative will begin to have a turn that explains why we’re sitting through so many unlikely stories. At the curtain call, we’re still wondering.
The son – did he have to be a journalist? – is getting married (does the bride have to be a journalist too?) and there’s no trouble in paradise. From an early age, he’s rolled his eyes at his father’s exaggerations. During the few months covered, he’s curious about why his father lies so much, and what, if anything, might be real. But the curiosity of a journalist isn’t particularly compelling, and it’s not as if this unfolds like a mystery, meting out clues to the puzzle. What’s needed is for the son to have some sort of emotional void that can only be filled by a greater understanding of his father. And that’s got to be understood and felt by the audience long before any life passages turn up.
One might argue that the story we’re viewing is the father’s story, and it takes place in flashbacks before the son is born. If so, the whimsy cuts too close to musical comedy clichés. Characters fall in love at first sight, move mountains to win an inamorata, villains get nice all of a sudden, and a lot of things come way too easily to our hero. Big Fish is a show that’s not without conflict, but never seems to have enough conflict to make you care about the result of any action.
While we’re all thinking about the act of spinning yarns, the pre-eminent director-choreographer of our time, Susan Stroman, puts considerable care into coming up with varied and whimsical ways of presenting each vignette. Individually, they can be effective, striking. Cumulatively, they pall. Without a workable overall arc, we go “What you got for us next, Stro?” and on comes a new set, a new color palette, a new style. A master plying the tricks of her trade grows wearisome fast when we get the sense that she’s just showing off. Her virtuosity is the point? Hell, we knew that decades ago.
Big Fish is very much less than the sum of its parts, but I’ll freely admit some of those parts are pretty wonderful. Start with Norbert Leo Butz. He’s never short of fully engaged; he has vast amounts of charm. We’re happy to have him on stage, and, luckily, he almost never leaves. Julian Crouch’s sets are, at times, beautiful, witty and, at one moment, astounding. I appreciate that he works fairly economically. The stage at The Neil Simon is relatively small for a musical house on Broadway. There are some heart-felt, genuinely emotional sequences. Mellifluous voices abound. As do top tier character actors, like Brad Oscar, who was in my Such Good Friends.
And I’m going to mention something that most people will overlook: Andrew Lippa’s music is effective, hummable, and pretty. This is one of those good old-fashioned scores that, years from now, people will listen to on record and wonder why the show wasn’t a bigger hit. But, since the advent of the cast album about 70 years ago, this has been the constant puzzlement of show tune fans. We hear a record – say, House of Flowers or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn – and think the show that contains those songs must be worthwhile. If devotees would put in the research, they’d discover that attractive songs can’t save a tale that barely seems worth telling.
But I want to get back to the phrase I began with: “hang together well.” My composition teacher had, himself, studied composition with Aaron Copland, and said that when the First Man of American Music liked something, he’d say “It hangs together well.” Big Fish is like an annoyingly eclectic art show. You see paintings in all genres, in varying levels of proficiency. But who’s curated this mess? They simply don’t hang together at all.