The chance to witness the impossible become reality is one of the main reasons that we go to see Broadway shows, and the newest musical playing at the Neil Simon Theatre electrifies audiences with the desire to be part of that experience. “Big Fish,” opening on Sunday, is based on the 2003 film by Tim Burton and the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace of the same title. It is a perfect choice for a stage adaptation, allowing the audience to enter into a variety of magical worlds through one man’s fantastical stories.
This man, Edward Bloom, leads a life that is intimately intertwined with the stories he tells his son, Will, about his past. These stories are rarely realistic, as they involve everything from witches to giants and werewolves. Will has always been skeptical of his father’s personal narratives, but it is only when Edward is diagnosed with a terminal illness that Will decides to find out the truth about his father’s life before it’s too late. The timeline of the show alternates between Will’s present-day life and Edward’s past adventures, with the two struggling to reconcile their relationship and define the often unclear boundaries between fiction and reality. The result is an adventure that’s as exciting, funny, romantic, and touching as Edward’s stories themselves.
Fans of the movie “Big Fish” might be skeptical of how a stage adaptation can handle many of the distinctively cinematic special effects used in the movie. But the creative team behind the play is more than up to the task of recreating these challenging visual moments. Highlights include the beautifully choreographed enchanted forest scene, the dancing elephants in the circus sequence, the pond full of fish in the orchestra pit, and, of course, the show’s signature image, the expansive field of daffodils. These scenes testify to the adaptation’s success in remaining true to the moments that characterize the story, while tweaking them to fit into the arc of the musical.
But what really makes “Big Fish” a great show is the music. Scored by Broadway veteran Andrew Lippa, best known for his musical “The Wild Party” and his contributions to the 1999 revival of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Big Fish” preserves the classic Broadway sound of traditional musical theater. It still has a modern twist, but unlike many contemporary musicals, it doesn’t borrow from other genres like pop, rock, or hip-hop in order to create its distinctive tone and original melodies.
Lippa’s score is handled beautifully by a cast overflowing with Broadway stars and led by Norbert Leo Butz (original cast of “Wicked,” “Rent,” and “The Last Five Years”) as Edward. Faced with the challenging task of portraying his character at almost every stage of his life, Butz does so with an incredible physicality and vocalization that manages to preserve Edward’s distinctive energy and playfulness throughout the course of his full existence. Other standouts included Kate Baldwin as Edward’s wife, Sandra, and Krystal Joy Brown as Will’s wife, Josephine. Combined with direction and choreography by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, “Big Fish” features a team comprised of the best of Broadway.
“Big Fish” uses the medium of musical theater to explore the power of storytelling and also remain faithful to the original literary and film versions of the story. It not only amazes us with miraculous scenes of fantasy, but also explores those moments where people connect in ways that completely exceed our expectations, making for a night of laughter, catharsis, and many stories to take home and share.
“Big Fish” runs through March 9, 2014 at the Neil Simon Theatre at 250 W. 52nd St. Tickets are $27 via Student Rush.