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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Like Billy Crudup in the film, Bobby Steggert manages to win genuine sympathy as the questioning son, who is on the brink of fatherhood himself. "What's beautiful about this show is that there's a complex conflict but also a really interesting resolution. What attracted me to it was that it has hope, it has love, it has optimism."
He feels there's a lot of food for thought here. "I want people to think about the legacy they'll leave behind," Steggert said. "I want people to think about the relationships they have — the way that they communicate with the people they love."
As Butz's wife and the designated referee of the house, auburn-haired Kate Baldwin makes her character one of the pillars of the production. "I love this character. She's warm, she's lovely, she's strong, she's trying to bring her husband and her son together again — make them see each other for who they are and appreciate them.
"Plus, Sandra Bloom is Southern. I love playing a Southern belle, mostly because I'm from Chicago, I think. I studied some really close friends who are Southern."
She's much younger than Jessica Lange, who did the part in the film, but she gets away with it, looking quite splendid as a matron. This is the second time in one year she has played Steggert's mother, the other time being Giant at the Public. "I'm six years older than him," she said, adding with a laugh, "Miracle birth, right?"
As in Giant, son Steggert opts for an interracial marriage, but nothing is made of it here. The role of his wife was played on screen by the pre-Piaf Marion Cotillard. "I adore her and her body of work," said Krystal Joy Brown, who inherited this role.
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"In fact, my character was French when we did it in Chicago. I had a French accent. I don't know exactly what the motivation was behind hiring an African-American girl — but, as we're moving into the future, I think it's time to just leave that alone. My boyfriend is white. It doesn't really matter. I see a lot of mixed couples, and I think it's truer to what's happening now. We need more representation of that."
Director-choreographer Stroman, who has been toiling over this project for three years, was drawn instinctively to the material because of her own personal history. "I think for anybody who creates for the theatre, or loves the theatre, you're here because somebody told you 'big fish' stories," she said. "And, of course, for me, my father told big fish stories, and I, to this day, still don't know if they are true or not. That was the thing that attracted me most. He would be very happy if he were here.
"This was a great collaboration with my designers. The show has heart with those scenes of the family, of course, but then it has the big opportunities for these fantastical moments when the father tells these 'big fish' stories. It has both, which is what I love about the musical. That combination is what I'm most proud of."
Adapter August welcomed the chance to rethink his source material the second time around. "You have to build things for a stage completely differently so, at no point, did I open up the old scripts or watch the movie. I had not watched the movie since we started working on the show. Everything has to grow its own way.
"We had the luxury of going to Chicago and trying it out. So much stuff worked well, and so much stuff didn't work. We took the summer off, then everyone came back. I came back with a new script. The first act was completely different in Chicago. We wrote four new songs in the first act, including the opening number. Bobby's 'I Want' song, 'Stranger' — that's brand-new to this production. We found brand-new scenes to get us into things. The show was written around a piano, and we were the audience five feet away. When the audience is 50 feet away in the darkness, there were things that weren't working, and we recognized that, and we did the work."
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Out of town, the creatives discovered they had truly a family entertainment on their hands. "That was the goal. When we went to Chicago, we saw people bringing their kids, and we realized we built a show that you can take an eight-year-old to. There's nothing that's going to be bad for them. They're more ready for it than you think."
August came to the Wallace novel through a personal tragedy. "When I read it as a manuscript, I had lost my father a few years before, so I knew what that was like, but I didn't want to write about my own experience. This was a chance to write about things I knew, without having it be strictly autobiographical. So I made the narrator character, Will, my age and Edward my dad's age so I could track the time.
"If you talk to Daniel Wallace, his father is very much like Edward Bloom so there are things that are autobiographical to Daniel. He got to know his father at the end, but he really got to know him better through his friends after he died."
Brad Oscar, whom Stroman directed to a Tony nomination as Franz Liebkind, the deranged German playwright in The Producers, runs the circus in one of Bloom's elaborate head trips.
Unsurprisingly, he swears by her. "Susan is the best collaborator. She is so smart. She's one of those people who was a performer and understands it in such a way that she only nurtures. Everything we get is so positive in that way because she wants us to be the best we can be, and, thus, we want to be the best we can be. It's always a very positive atmosphere in the room. That's the best place to work from.
"I feel very passionate about this piece. We've all worked very hard, certainly, to get it here. Because it's a show about parent-child relationships — and we're all a parent or we're all a child — it's something we relate to. We all bring our own stuff to this."
Ben Crawford, who plays Bloom's romantic rival and is as much of a villain as the show can muster, didn't mind the "heavy" tag, primarily because, "I love this show. It's so close to my heart. I come from a strong family, and it's just so wonderful to see the connection be created between father and son on stage."
Ten-year-old Zachary Unger ran the press gauntlet like a child in a candy store. He juggles four roles: "Young Will, a clown, Will's son and a boy in the park," he ticked off. His favorite thing: "I like being with the cast. They're really friendly."
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Angie Schworer had it worse character-wise, but maintained a good attitude. "I do 14 costume changes and play about a million people," she said. "It's a lot of quick changes and a lot of work, but it's all fun and it helps tell the story, and that's what Big Fish is all about — telling the story and creating those little fantastical moments."
The roles of the witch and a high school girlfriend, which were merged in the movie to give Mrs. Burton (Helena Bonham Carter) more to do, have been separated into two characters for the musical.
"It seemed to make more sense the way it was played out on the stage," said Kirsten Scott, who plays the former half. "Although her love for Edward might be a little bit misguided, I think she has a very genuine love. I think that's really hard to find in a character. It's very true, and it's very innocent."
Ryan Andes, who lumbers around the stage, towering over one and all as a giant named Carl, turns out to be much shorter on the red carpet — a less freaky six-foot-four — which still puts him head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. Stilts give him an extra two feet and accentuate his lumbering movements through scenes.
He is making his Broadway debut, wearing his grandfather's watch for good luck. It was at the Simon (then the Alvin) that his grandfather — Keith Andes — made his last Broadway appearance as Lucille Ball's leading man, Joe Dynamite, in Wildcat.
The mermaid who relegates the orchestra to the back of the stage and turns their pit into her own private pool parked her fins and blonde wig for the red carpet, becoming Sarrah Strimel. "Three different puppeteers work the fins," she revealed.
"I don't know anyone who could see this show and not be emotionaly moved," declared Graham Rowat, who — full disclosure — is married to redheaded leading lady Baldwin. "We have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, and we're both working on Broadway. I'm playing Harry, the British dad, in Mamma Mia! Life is good."
Another conspicuously employed acting couple, Sebastian Arcelus and Stephanie J. Block, are on the brink of openings. His, A Time To Kill, just racked up its first week of previews. "It's an amazing ensemble cast of 14 actors that I'm so thrilled to be sharing the stage with," he said. Hers, Little Miss Sunshine, goes into previews Oct. 15 with a cast of 10, six of whom are crammed into a van for a cross-country trip.
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Frank Marshall, who produces movie blockbusters (Spielberg, a specialty), arrived with the songwriter Jimmy Buffet. Together they are Parrothead Productions. "Bruce Cohen, who produced the original movie of 'Big Fish,' called and said, 'We're thinking of doing a musical version, and I said, 'I'm in,'" explained Marshall. "This is our first Broadway musical."
Buffet applauded Lippa's score, saying, "I think there are three songs in it that are catchy enough that you go out humming them. As a songwriter myself, I just like anything that tells a good story."
Zach Braff with Taylor Bagley, already made a double debut Off-Broadway as a playwright and as an actor. Now, he can't wait to start rehearsing for his Broadway acting debut in Bullets Over Broadway in January. He will play the hapless young playwright.
Comedian Mario Cantone deferred to his partner, Jerry Dixon, for Broadway news. "Did you know I'm returning to Broadway after 21 years?" Dixon beamed. "My first time back since Five Guys Named Moe. I'm going to be in the new If/Then written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and directed by Michael Greif. It's very exciting to be doing a new show. We're in week five of rehearsal. We go to D.C. in mid-October, start performances there Nov. 5, and then we come back to New York and open March 27 at the Richard Rodgers. I play Steven, a city planner."
"And he's the best city-planner actor in the country!" chimed in Cantone.
Other first nighters included Brent Barrett (who'll "Speak Low" Oct. 7 at Symphony Space, saluting Kurt Weill on Broadway with Melissa Errico, Ron Raines and Judy Blazer); Tony winner Billy Porter, wearing well his Kinky Boots success ("It's energizing to be a part of something that you've waited your whole life for. It's nice. It's really nice."); Victor Garber, back in town from shooting "Selfless" with Ryan Reynolds and Sir Ben Kingsley in New Orleans; Kathy Najimy, having made the coast switch back here two years ago ("I'm working on a solo show called Lift Up Your Skirts"); and Matthew Broderick, another Producers Tony nominee who couldn't praise Stroman's direction enough ("The staging is mind-blowing!").
Also: Sierra Boggess, Entertainment Weekly editor Jess Cagle and lead producer Dan Jinks, a gaggle of actors from the upcoming "Annie" film (Zoe Colletti, Nicolette Pierini, Amanda Troya, Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis and Eden Duncan Smith), Amy Fine Collins, Whoopi Goldberg. Ellen Greene, Paul Haggis, Perez Hilton, Kara Lindsay and Thea Brooks, Michael Mayer and Spencer Liff, Jimmy Nederlander and Margo MacNabb Nederlander, Zachary Quinto, Thomas Roberts and Patrick Abner, Liev Schreiber with sons Samuel and Alexander and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank. Marisa Tomei, Regis Philbin and Catherine Zeta-Jones were camera-shy.