New musical “Big Fish” has a high-class problem. In the six months between the end of this Chicago tryout and its Broadway launch in September, creatives need to resist tampering too much with something that already works. This is a wholly satisfying show: meaningful, emotional, tasteful, theatrically imaginative and engaging. Director-choreographer Susan Stroman pulls off a remarkable balance, unifying serious, potentially dark elements — a dying father, a son harboring a lifetime of anger — with the fanciful. It’s is not a genre piece that has a clear niche audience, but that uniqueness is exactly what makes it so broadly appealing.
Based on the original novel and on John August’s screenplay adaptation— August contributes the book here — this stage rendition covers the same territory but has a very different take on the material from Tim Burton’s film. It’s subdued where the film was overeager, beginning with the earth tones of Julian Crouch’s set design, an elegant assembly of irising wood slats that give a nod to the Southern setting while allowing for a series of total transformations, often with the help of fantastic projections, costumes, and lighting that enable, for example, tree roots to suddenly become people.
Emotionally the show is simplified where the film was a touch muddy; it smartly sacrifices a degree of Burton’s sophisticated depth for a more accessible relationship between father and son and between reality and fantasy. Whereas in the film the character of Edward Bloom was played as a young man by Ewan McGregor and as an old man by Albert Finney, he is here embodied at all ages by the wondrous Norbert Leo Butz (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Catch Me if You Can”), an approach that on the one hand allows Butz to display his extraordinary range of talents and also provides a more direct, undivided emotional connection to the character.
In the argument between the story-loving Edward and his literal, skeptical son Will (Bobby Steggert), this version exposes the depth of emotion early with an angry confrontation and song — “This River Between Us” — but also takes a clear stand in the fight. “You gotta dream big,” Edward tells the 6-year-old Will (Zachary Unger), “or you’re never gonna have a big life.” And Will’s mother (an excellent Kate Baldwin) both explains her husband’s storytelling and admonishes her son: “Each word becomes a poem / Each sentence filled with joy, / Can’t you try to be your father’s boy?” And finally, when Will asks the family doctor about the day he was born, a day that Edward has turned into the title tale of a big fish which became the opening number “The God’s Honest Truth,” the doctor explains that fantasy can be superior to reality: “Sometimes talkin’ is how a man makes sense of the world.”
This is where the show finds its most important, simplest success. Stroman, August, and composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family,” “The Wild Party”) know exactly when the story needs to launch into song, and the tunes take on the varying flavors of whatever adventure Edward relates. We meet the Witch (Katie Thompson, bringing down the house) who predicts young Edward’s death, Karl the giant (Ryan Andes, instantly likable) and the carnival barker Amos Calloway (Brad Oscar, phenomenal). Lippa has never been the most conventional of composers, but he’s a perfect fit for this unconventionally conventional show where he can create a pastiche of Americana.
Not everything works perfectly. The Act II opening, a patriotic, USO-inspired number depicting Edward’s fight against a comicbook-like villain, is corny without being fun enough. But that’s the rare example of where this show needs refinement. More generally, by taking Edward’s tales as the jumping-off point for the theatricality of production numbers, the show makes a case for the musical form itself as a means of privileging imagination over ordinariness. The show does have a target audience after all, and it’s those who love musicals.
(Oriental Theater, Chicago; 2,200 seats; $100 top)
A Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen, Stage Entertainment USA, Roy Furman, Broadway Across America/Rich Entertainment Group, John Domo, and Nederlander Organization presentation in association with CJ E&M, Parrothead Prods. and Columbia Pictures of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia Pictures film screenplay by August. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.
Music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Set, Julian Crouch; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Jon Weston; projections, Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; make-up, Angelina Avallone; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; production management, Aurora Prods.; production supervisor, Joshua Halperin. Opened, reviewed April 19, 2013, runs through May 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
With: Bobby Steggert, Norbert Leo Butz, Anthony Pierini, Zachary Unger, Kate Baldwin, Krystal Joy Brown, JC Montgomery, Ben Crawford, Katie Thompson, Sarrah Strimel, Kirsten Scott, Ryan Andes, Brad Oscar, Bree Branker, Alex Brightman, Robin Campbell, Bryn Dowling, Jason Lee Garrett, Leah Hofmann, Angie Schworer, Lara Seibert, Tally Sessions, Cary Tedder, Preston Truman Boyd, Joshua Buscher, Synthia Link, Ashley Yeater.
Musical numbers: Act I: “The God’s Honest Truth,” “This River Between Us,” “I Know What You Want,” “Born for the Water,” “Bigger,” “Sandra’s Wish,” “Little Lamb From Alabama,” “Time Stops,” “Closer to Her,” “Daffodils.” Act II: “Red, White and True,” “Fight the Dragons,” “Showdown,” “I Don’t Need a Roof,” “Start Over,” “Time Stops (reprise),” “What’s Next,” “How It Ends.”