Big Fish is one of, if not the most anticipated musical of the season, and with good reason. While I wasn’t a big fan of the 2003 Tim Burton film, its fantastical, never subtle but often poignant plot about a man’s larger-than-life stories and his son’s refusal to accept them, even at his father’s deathbed, seems rife with great musical moments. For sure, this needed to be a musical that would outdo its predecessors in all ways. It would need great production value, it would ring true with observations on life and death, and it would have at its center a simple, yet emotionally fraught relationship between father and son.
Then it was announced that this father and son would be played by Norbert Leo Butz and Bobby Steggert, respectively, and well, it seemed like the heavens had finally shined down upon me and my Broadway fantasies.
Obviously, I set exceptionally high standards for this show and it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they’re nowhere near met. But, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one feeling let-down when by the end of intermission, which arrived at the end of an arduously long first act, I noticed more than a few empty seats in my area.
Now, I should state that the production was in late previews when I saw it, with about a week and a half before yesterday’s opening. So some things might have changed.
But what baffled me most was how the core of the show, the relationship between father and son, can be so dull and boring. Allow me to recap. Throughout Will Bloom’s life (Steggert), his father Ed (Butz) has told him stories about the wild adventures of his youth. The stories involve a bayou witch revealing to him the way he dies, his work at a traveling circus led by a werewolf ringleader, getting shot out of a canon across Alabama State, and saving the town from a friendless giant.
Now an adult, Will is about to get married and become a father himself while his father is suddenly diagnosed with cancer. He searches for the truth about his father’s legacy before he passes it onto his own children.
Sounds great, right? Sounds like tons of father-son arguments, some heated debates, some mysterious clues, right? Sounds like an enormously emotional journey for both father and son to go through together, with so much lifelong anxiety built since childhood, that the show’s happy ending will be one grand cathartic tearjerker, right?
It’s none of these. (Well, I did cry a little at the end, but I’m sure exhaustion was a part of it). Unlike the film’s father-son relationship, there are no hard feelings between the two. In fact, hardly does Steggert even raise his voice, which, honestly, is what Steggert does best. A show with Bobby Steggert in which Bobby Steggert doesn’t have a least one scene of screaming, crying, blubbering, angry frustration is not a show to me. This Will is bland. You would never know there was anything abnormal in this relationship. Even when Will actually gets off his newly-married-and-therefore-presumably-quaint-and-lazy butt and searches for what he assumes is his father’s mistress, he does so with calm, patience, and neatness. There’s nothing at stake in this relationship. The only time we see Will and Ed face each other in a tense way is in a dream sequence set in an old Western saloon, in which Will shows up in a really awful cowboy get-up and challenges his father in a dream duel. Not only did I find the dream sequence kind of embarassingly bad, it was also out-of-touch with the musical because WILL DOESN’T ACTUALLY CHALLENGE HIS FATHER TO MUCH OF ANYTHING. Which means that the ending, when son finally reconciles with his father’s storytelling in what would be a beautifully touching scene means very little. Because very little actually changes. A story needs some kind of dramatic tension if you actually want to resolve that dramatic tension.
Now, back to Ed Bloom. The show is largely a display of Ed’s stories, which means that there are plenty of costume changes, scene changes, and lots of production going into making everything look as real and fantastical as possible. The show succeeds on this front. All the costumes are excellent (much is being written about the witches who blend into trees), the sets are gorgeous (for the most part: sometimes the stage projections feel more like they came out of a video-game than a fairytale), and there’s a lot attention to detail in the show’s countless settings.
Norbert Leo Butz is a force of nature (might as well come out and say it) and what his character lacks in… well, character… he makes up for in raw energy. It’s pretty impossible to take your eyes off him, even amidst his lush surroundings. Yet, while his stories are fun and all, they fall flat because there is no character-focused motivation. We don’t actually learn anything from these tales besides “Oh, Ed Bloom is such a romantic!” or “Ed Bloom, your such a hero!” Actually I’m pretty sure that is the extent to the morals of these stories. One way we could be more invested in the stories is that we could have more doubts about their truthfulness. That tension between what’s fact and what’s fiction is something that would give insight into both Will’s and Ed’s personalities, as well as reflect on the effects of/motivations behind storytelling. Another way to give the stories more meaning is to have them perhaps mirror some of the issues Will or old Ed is dealing with, so that the past generation is in conversation with the present. Another way would be to amplify Will and Ed’s problems with the stories and with each other, with the effect of making us see Ed’s tales from both Ed’s optimistic standpoint and Will’s more cynical point of view.
But there’s none of that. No tensions. No motivations. No change. Hardly a character development. Poor Kate Baldwin gets to dress up like a school girl. All this accumulates into stagnant storytelling, making even Ed’s exciting feel tired, frivolous, and dispensable. Wow, is that how we’re supposed to get insight into Will’s cynical POV?
Now, if you’d like to see a musical number better than anything you’ll find in Big Fish and that is loosely linked to daffodils (as in, daffodils are mentioned twice in the whole song) watch this