Norbert Leo Butz is cutting loose in another one of his don’t-dare-miss-this perfs in “Big Fish,” a show that speaks to anyone pining for a studiously heart-warming musical about the efforts of a dying man to justify a lifetime of lousy parenting to his alienated son. Should the feel-good message underwhelm Bway auds, regional prospects still look solid for helmer-choreographer Susan Stroman’s imaginative production of the show, which features an easy-listenin’ score by Andrew Lippa and a not-too-sappy book by John August, adapted from his screenplay for the Tim Burton movie, itself based on the best-selling novel by Daniel Wallace.
Edward Bloom is a close relation to those problematical characters that Butz played so brilliantly in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me If You Can,” the kind of morally flawed person who needs beaucoup help from a sympathetic thesp to win over an audience. Butz gives it all he’s got — a con man’s charm, an honest man’s earnestness, and his own touching faith in the character’s essential goodness — convincing us to root for an ego-centric narcissist who has made his life into a fairytale drama.
Like a lesser-scaled Willy Loman, Edward is a traveling salesman who neglects his familial duties to his wife, Sandra (Kate Baldwin), and son, Will (Bobby Steggert), back home in Alabama. Both characters are seriously underdrawn and neither thesp does much with them, except in those songs that momentarily transform them into human beings.
Baldwin gets her big moment with “I Don’t Need a Roof,” the heartbreaking goodbye that Sandra sings to her husband on his deathbed. For Steggert, it’s “What’s Next,” Will’s embrace of his dying father’s cockeyed philosophy of life. Both thesps stand and deliver when given the chance, but make no mistake about it — this is Edward’s story and Butz’s show.
Every man wants to be a hero to his son. Edward needs to be a hero to himself. Hence, the tall tales and elaborate daydreams he spins to convince himself that there is meaning and purpose to his ordinary life. His theme song, “Be a Hero,” says it all, with its lyric promises of “anything you desire, anything on a plate.” But if you can resist Butz’s robust delivery, the substance of the song is actually kind of creepy — a ringing affirmation of that all-American, character-undermining fantasy that you can be anyone and have anything you desire, just by wishing and wanting it so.
Shabby values aside, the show has its enchantments. These are largely the gifts of helmer-choreographer-magician Stroman, who brings genuine wit to her technically ingenious stagecraft.
Edward’s flights of imagination begin on the nursery level with visions of fairytale witches and giants and ogres. Without missing a beat, they move on to puberty dreams of cowboys and circuses and mermaids and werewolves, and make it all the way to a young lad’s fantasies about cheerleaders and tap-dancing USO girls.
Resisting the usual Broadway tendency toward over-production, this show is perfectly scaled to the modest level of Edward’s boyish daydreams.
Invention, not excess, seems to be the dominant house rule, from the tight choreography, which is quick and clever and never over the top, to the primary-color projections by Benjamin Pearcy that make a comic-book universe of Julian Crouch’s sets. William Ivey Long captures the playful vibe with ingenious costumes that move in unexpected ways (like the fishtail of a mermaid’s silvery costume) and contribute their own magic to the storytelling (like the witches that materialize from the trees in a forest).
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.