There's never a doubt who the big fish is really in the Big Fish that landed Oct. 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre: Norbert Leo Butz, a two-time Tony winner obviously going for Number 3 in the same theatre where he won his last one (for Catch Me If You Can).
Here, he is Edward Bloom, a garden-variety Alabama good ole boy with a fertile imagination that has kept his real self pretty much a mystery to the world in general and to his son, Will, in particular. He is reaching the end of his days as a self-made question mark, having kept everyone at bay with a thick smokescreen of tall tales parading as fact involving a mermaid, a giant, a circus ringmaster and a witch.
Only Tim Burton, an idiosyncratic visualist in the extreme, would rise to the bait of such a bizarre menagerie — and indeed he did a decade back with a slightly schizoid spectacle consisting of one-part home-and-hearth and one-part high-flying fantasy.
In the movie version, Albert Finney played the near-death patriarch and Ewan McGregor was his younger self who acted out his fantastical adventures. On stage, Butz takes on both chores manfully and rather magnificently, tearing through the story like a white tornado, bringing maximum charm, drive and wit throughout.
"Tim Burton was exactly the right director for 'Big Fish,' and I love the movie he made," said John August, who adapted Daniel Wallace's novel to the screen and now to the stage. "When it came time to do the stage version, we had to find 'Who is the Tim of Broadway musicals?' and that was Susan Stroman. We were incredibly lucky to get her — someone who has the vision, the movement, the imagination, the dance."
Showman Stroman gives the piece an aggressive staging and put a lot of clever kicks and tricks into choreographing Andrew Lippa's lively and varied score. Notably, the upbeat, Southern-fried ditties have a distinct "Jubilation T. Cornpone" tang to them.
After the curtain call, Stroman came on stage and summoned her spectacular design team for well-earned bows: Julian Crouch on sets, the inestimable William Ivey Long on costumes, Donald Holder on lighting and Jon Weston on sound. All of them helped the stage version equal the sumptuous visuals that the movie put forth.
The properly glittery turnout of first-nighters then took an easy amble across 52nd to Roseland for the after-party, which was dotted with daffodils, one of the romantic motifs of the show. Food stations around the dance floor offered varied menus.
A fireball of energy through the whole show, Butz breezed professionally through the press gauntlet in the Roseland lobby, betraying for the first time signs of the bad cold that had been plaguing him all week. "I'm a little under," he allowed lightly.
Born in Missouri, he moved to Alabama when he was 20 and spent about six years there getting a graduate degree, but his Edward Bloom isn't based on any of the denizens he met there. "Mostly, I started with Dan Wallace's novel. It's so rich and textured. Everything is right there that you need." He incorporated a bit of his father in the FBI agent he played in Catch Me If You Can; here, "not so much, but I'm sure, as the play thematically points out, that we take on our fathers and their personalities and their stories as we age so I'm sure he's always with me wherever I go.
"Edward Bloom is a man among men. He's not someone you'd look at twice if you passed him on the street, yet inside that ordinary shell is a brilliant imagination and a huge heart and enormous spirit. He's just a guy who's married and raised a son — a real normal guy — but housed inside his sort of average life is an amazing man."
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