With British and Irish yarns so dominant at the higher end of Broadway, time surely is ripe for an American family musical, at once fantastical and emotional, with its heart in family reconciliation and its roots in the florid storytelling culture of the small towns of the Deep South. "Big Fish" is the worthy, seriously ambitious new tuner based on the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel and the 2003 Tim Burton movie, which opened in its pre-Broadway tryout at Chicago's Oriental Theatre on Friday night. It has resonance, integrity, originality of form, formidable leading talents in Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin, and about two-thirds of what should end up as Andrew Lippa's best score to date.
But if it's not to be the one that got away, the show must now focus its efforts on clarifying the emotional logic of its characters and ensuring that there is a clearer pathway for the audience through the excessive, perplexing anger in the show. It also should add some darker, creepier and more magical elements to a story that is very much about how we approach death and yet feels too mundane and low-stakes here. And it needs to come up with some workable and consistent live theatrical equivalent of the gorgeous, surreal glaze that Burton baked on the towering celluloid tales of his central character. That would be Edward Bloom of Ashton, Ala., a man who claims to have saved a giant, worked for a circus werewolf, turned a war around and planted an ocean of daffodils to win a beautiful young woman's heart.
Once all that is in place, there should then be time for the writer John August (who also penned the movie screenplay) and the rest of director Susan Stroman's creative team to focus on the titular oversized sea creature, who makes only a cameo appearance from the orchestra pit. When elephants' rear ends — fun as they are — have a bigger footprint than either an intoxicating mermaid or the symbolic creature whose name is right there on the marquee, it's time for the designer Julian Crouch to cast out again for a couple of new ideas. Crouch does have many beautiful, interlocking vistas here, forged with the help of Donald Holder's textured lights and William Ivey Long's richly hewn costumes.
As fans of the movie (modestly successful at the box office but a beautiful, resonant film) will remember, Bloom's obsession with dramatizing and seemingly concealing his own ordinary life in a lifetime of storytelling infuriates his just-the-facts son Will (Bobby Steggert), a newspaper reporter by trade who thinks he wants only to actually know his father. The story that especially angers Will, who returns to Alabama with his French wife, Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown) once his father is stricken with cancer, is the one Edward tells of Will's own birth — the big fish is the star — which seems to be a narrative that the son has a right to factually own.
The novel and movie, though, ask two central questions. Who's to say what is true and what's false in an illogical world full of surprises? And who's to say that fact, especially painful fact, is a preferable basis for living our lives on this rough, tough Earth than empowering, comforting fiction? Those are great questions for a musical and they must be its primary focus.
In order for this father-and-son tale of reconciliation to function, of course, the two main characters have to be mad at each other. But it's delicate — they also have to be sympathetic figures. At this juncture, it's unclear why Steggert's Will is so absurdly angry at his father — indeed, he's too invulnerable to enter our hearts. Butz, whose performance carries huge potential once he finds more surety, is more sympathetic, but he too feels overly gruff and, well, small in the early moments of a show with a weak start. This partly is a book problem, but it's also a matter of these actors finding far more warmth, color, character and humor in their performances. Also lacking in feeling is the bland Brown, whose Josephine, an emotional well in the movie, is terribly underwritten in the musical. Only Baldwin, for whom Lippa has penned the beautiful love ballad "I Don't Need a Roof," among other pleasures, has found a full emotional center.
Other highlights of the score are "Time Stops," another gorgeous love song (albeit weirdly staged), and the pretty Act 1 close, "Daffodils." Lowlights include "I Know What You Want," an entirely misconceived production number that defangs the creepy witch who, crucially for the story, tells Edward how he dies. It's pivotal that she be mysterious, enigmatic and, well, true. As played by Katie Thompson, stuck with bad material, she's a dull, campy, standard-issue diva, adding nothing and removing requisite tension.
Even that number is not as bad as the funeral finale, which looks like Stroman ran out of time. Everyone seems to miss the point of that scene, which surely is that Will comes to see that his father maybe was not the big fat liar he always thought. On Friday, Steggert reacted to the unspooling human revelations like they were the most normal things in the world — this will be a tremendous disappointment to fans of the movie who will wait for this moving payoff and get only a limp ending. "How it Ends" is not the right song.
The musical has to have its own identity, of course. The big narrative changes from the film include the nixing of the Siamese Twins (whose mystical exoticism is sorely missed and not adequately replaced), the creation of a bland, wrongly toned, USO-style production number (weirdly featuring Baldwin, for the war scene, which is too hard to unpack) and, most pivotal of all, the consolidation of the town in which Edward was born and the town he saves. That change perhaps makes sense for simplicity's sake, but it needs a lot more careful tracking and foreshadowing.
Aside from some really gorgeous, simple scenes between Butz and Baldwin, whose abiding love is totally credible and very moving (and one of several reasons why the show is already worth seeing), Stroman's best work to date comes in a couple of dazzling numbers where she stages the rapid passage of time ("Bigger"), some lively scenes at the circus, and, most crucially, where she manages to integrate the present and flashback sequences in potent ways.
When that works as it often does in Act 2 (the flashback scenes with Kirsten Scott's Jenny, perhaps Edward's other woman, have a physicalized intensity that really kicks in emotionally), you can see flashes of what this show could be: an emotional exploration of truth, fiction, fact and storytelling. Stroman has the chops. Butz and Baldwin (and, yes, Steggert, if there is a major reboot) have in abundance what this show will need. Heart.
Broadway, and Chicago, should be angling for "Big Fish" to swim is way upstream; it's a classy, detailed, heartfelt piece full of rich music and quality writing with far more Southern authenticity — and less Red State condescension — than, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Whistle Down the Wind," or most other tuners designed to exploit the characters of Dixie. This one is truer to the tales of Alabama. And in the best moments, you feel like you're watching something deep and powerful, sourced by a work of fine literature, propelled into awareness by a potent film and, most crucially of all, a story that makes us feel we can control, if not transcend, the story of the end of our lives.
If this new American musical can fully connect to all that, we will believe anything it wants.
When: Through May 5
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes