Edward Bloom will die a “glorious” death at the end of “Big Fish,” which has just opened at the Neil Simon Theatre. That’s not a spoiler; it’s an explanation. Blessed, if you’d call it that, to know the “when” and “how” of his life’s final chapter, the peculiar protagonist of Susan Stroman’s giddy, overstuffed new musical is free to take risks the rest of us wouldn’t, for fear of bodily harm.
Norbert Leo Butz, as Edward, is as charismatic as ever in this father-and-son fable, based on Tim Burton’s 2003 film about a traveling salesman who tells far-fetched stories. We know from early on Edward’s end is nigh. What we don’t know is the scope of Edward’s legacy. Is he a rakish con, who has kept terrible secrets from his family? Or has he traced the path most of us ultimately hope to, leaving his little piece of Alabama in better shape than he found it?
Most eager to answer that question is Edward’s son, Will (Bobby Steggert, “Ragtime”), a journalist on the cusp of fatherhood who is as fact-oriented as his dad is a fabulist, with those loopy anecdotes about giants and circus troupes. As “Big Fish” opens, we’re at a rehearsal dinner for Will’s wedding, and son is asking father to skip the toast for fear of embarrassing him, a futile request with disastrous consequences.
“Big Fish” itself refers to just one more of the stories Will and his mom, Sandra (Kate Baldwin, “Finian’s Rainbow”) have been subjected to over the years, like the one about how Edward saved a general from an assassin’s poison dart during “the war.” By Will’s count, there are some 36 “basic” tales in Edward’s repertoire. It’s Will who explains Edward best: “Dad is like the weather. I can predict him, sort of, but I fundamentally don’t understand him. He’s this baffling hurricane.”
That’s a perfect way to describe Butz, as well, the hucksterish leading man who can anchor anything thrown at him (see: “Dead Accounts”) with his relentless enthusiasm and commitment. The two-time Tony winner leaps, swaggers and sweats his way through more than two-and-a-half hours of fair-to-middling show tunes with enough visual spice to keep us engaged, if not quite tapping our fingers along in our armrests.
Steggert does a nice job as the son desperate to know his father as time is running out, yet frustrated by the man’s exaggerations, which Will believes are blocking some fundamental truth. Steggert’s grip on “Stranger,” a first act solo, was tenuous, but he seemed to find his comfort zone as “Fish” moved toward its climax, one generation helping the next make his final journey.
As Sandra, Tony-nominee Baldwin is in lovely form in a largely one-note part, the loyal-to-a-fault mom who’s accepting of her husband’s eccentricities. Among the supporting players, Krystal Joy Brown (“Leap of Faith”) stands out as Josephine, Will’s hormonally compromised fiancee, as does the reliable Brad Oscar (“The Producers”) as circus owner Amos Callaway, who unfairly exacts sweat from a young Edward and is redeemed by story’s end.
The talented Zachary Unger, as young Will, shows charm, range and a knack for eye-rolling in his delightful scenes with both Butz and Steggert.
You can spot Stroman’s choreography from a giant’s length: production numbers are flashy and colorful. Witness the act one closer, “Daffodils,” as Edward woos the red-head who’ll become his wife amid a field of blooming (wink, wink) flowers; or the second act curtain-raiser, “Red, White and True,” with its reveal of a three-tiered orchestra.
Where “Big Fish” gets stuck in the shallows is with its score, by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family”). A brash musical demands you leave the theater wanting to buy the cast recording, or at least humming a song. “Big Fish” doesn’t, though “Be the Hero,” which bookends the production, is catchy enough, in spite of its been-there-heard-that message: you should “be the hero of your own story.”
Similarly, the book by John August (the film’s screenwriter) crams in so many characters and subplots from the source material that most of the roles remain one-dimensional: the adoring mom, the gentle giant, etc. There’s a lot to keep up with, and some of the father-son cliches are grating: “Grow up, Will,” father tells son, during a fight over that wedding toast. Comes Will’s reply: “I did! You weren’t there. You were never there.”
Julian Crouch’s scenic design is as compelling as can be, with projections onto wood planks and a clever trick that has Butz turning into a human cannonball. William Ivey Long’s festive costumes allow a human dancer in a fluttering skirt to transform into a roaring orange campfire.
“Big Fish” sneaks up on you at the end, with a reminder that the way you see a situation may not always be the reality. The final 20 minutes of the musical, all very “circle of life,” are its most vibrant. We’d get into more detail, but as Edward tells his family whenever they inquire about his long-foreshadowed demise: “It’s a surprise ending. I wouldn’t want to ruin it for ya.”
“Big Fish,” at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., for an open-ended run. Tickets: $55-$155. Call 800-745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn