PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 5-11: Big Fish Splashes onto Broadway, Janis Joplin Gives Us Her Heart and Soul Doctor Bids Farewell
By Robert Simonson
Big Fish, the new musical by composer Andrew Lippa and librettist John August, and directed by Susan Stroman, opened on Broadway this week.
Given the personnel, which also include stars Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert, there was a fair amount of anticipation for this production, particularly since it is one of the only new musicals with actual new music to hit Broadway this fall.
Sadly, Big Fish didn't make a big splash. Reviews were lukewarm nearly across the board, most noting that the show — all about the grandly embroidered fantasies of the past told by the dying hero, Edward Bloom — lacked a certain magic.
"For a show that celebrates tall tales, Big Fish feels curiously stunted," stated the Times. Said Newsday, "it's crushing to realize, early on, that this gentle, sincere, beautiful-looking show is deadly dull. Author John August, who also wrote the screenplay, strings sentimentality and hackneyed picaresque escapades together as if they were equivalent balls on a string."
Variety, which was more positive, admitted that set designer Julian Crouch and costume designer William Ivey Long provided plenty of razzle-dazzle. But "The main thing missing from this show — and might have taken the edge off its unlikable hero and unpalatable message — is the mystical sensibility that flavors Southern storytelling. Although supposedly set in Alabama, there's not a hint here, musical or otherwise, of the traditional magic found in regional folktales. The kind of magic that might transform a selfish character like Edward Bloom into the hero of his own dreams."
More than anything else, the score was faulted, and Lippa came in for a critical drubbing. "I couldn't get past fundamental problems with the source material," wrote The Hollywood Reporter. "While the lyrics are more literal than imaginative, not to mention doused in Hallmark syrup, Lippa's score is better than his last show, The Addams Family."
Butz, who these days headlines more new musicals than any other actor, and never fails to impress the critics, again won admiring reviews. "Butz proves he's simply in a league of his own," wrote the AP, "able to switch from middle-aged to teenager in a snap, offering a complex portrait of a Southern man while avoiding good 'ol boy cliches, and he even spends some of the night lying in a hospital bed, not the most expected way to lead a musical."
The other Broadway opening of the week was the "concert" musical A Night With Janis Joplin, which stars Mary Bridget Davies as the late rock singer. It officially opened at the Lyceum Theatre Oct. 10.
Written and directed by Randy Johnson, the new musical purported to dissect the musical roots of Joplin's inimitable vocal style without wallowing too much in the sordid details of her short life.
The general critical thrust was: Good concert; bland play. Most every review applauded Davies' eerily apt performance as Joplin, noting the actress' similar looks and vocal styles. (It's always disquieting to see drama critics — among the least hip people on the planet — use the word "rockin'" in a sentence.)
Still, critics had their complaints. Most found the tale that surrounded the music too staid and sanitized. "Where the script goes irritatingly wrong is Joplin's near-lecturing on the blues," complained The Daily News. "'I got the blues because I don't have my baby,' she says. 'I got the blues because I don't have the quarter for a bottle of wine, I got the blues because they won't let me in that bar …' Enough. She brings up the blues so much that she wrings the color and potency out of the idea and has you seeing red. Better to let the music do the talking."
Bloomberg observed, "The heroin-addicted, Southern Comfort-swilling, sexually ambiguous Joplin arrives on Broadway essentially stripped of her rough edges."
The New York Post, meanwhile, wanted to dispense with the whole genre of show that the show represented. "Enough of these babyboomer-baiting tribute concerts trying to pass for Broadway musicals! Just months after the Beatles impersonators in Let It Be left town comes A Night With Janis Joplin — or more exactly, A Night With Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin, though that title wouldn't sell many tickets."
As expected, the American Repertory Theater production of All The Way, playwright Robert Schenkkan's new drama that stars "Breaking Bad" actor Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson, will transfer to Broadway.
Meanwhile, Soul Doctor, the new Broadway musical about the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach which people have been expecting to close so long that they almost forgot it was still running, finally threw in the towel. The show will end its Broadway run Oct. 13 at the Circle in the Square, producers announced Oct. 8.
The Lincoln Center Theater world premiere of Bruce Norris' new drama Domesticated began performances this week at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
The play has a couple of impressive stars, Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Goldblum, who are backed up ably by Vanessa Aspillaga, Mia Barron, Robin De Jesus, Lizbeth Mackay, Emily Meade, Mary Beth Peil, Karen Pittman, Aleque Reid and Misha Seo, all under the guidance of Anna D. Shapiro, who directed Tracy Letts' August: Osage County.
Norris' play, commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater, is said to dive "into the conflagration of gender, power, sexuality and politics that emerges in a private relationship after a public humiliation." Metcalf and Goldblum play Judy and Bill Pulver, whose marriage is thrust into the public eye by scandal.
The first major New York revival of Donald Margulies' incisive domestic drama Dinner With Friends will star Jeremy Shamos, Darren Pettie, Marin Hinkle and Maria Dizzia as the play's two sets of unhappy marrieds. The Roundabout Theatre Company production will begin performances Jan. 10, 2014, under the direction of Pam MacKinnon.
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