This weekend, I had the privilege of seeing the Pre-Broadway premiere of the new musical Big Fish. An adaptation of the Tim Burton film and book of the same title, Big Fish tells the extraordinary tale of Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who lived an exceptional life. Norbert Leo Butz leads the cast as Edward and is accompanied by Kate Baldwin as Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife, and Bobby Steggert as Edward’s estranged son Will. It’s a strong cast and they really breathe life into their characters.
The play begins as Edward is telling his young son a bedtime story—one that supposedly takes place on the day Will was born—about the time when Edward caught an uncatchable fish using his wedding ring. The opening number, “The God’s Honest Truth,” is highly energetic and features some impressive tech, but I wasn’t really sold from this beginning. The music was catchy, the effects were engaging, and the choreography was well done, but it was a bit too crowded or jumbled and lacked heart.
After that number, however, when you see a young Will step behind his bed and his adult counterpart stepping out, it develops into a much more heartfelt, and equally fantastic, journey. From that moment forward, the show had my undivided attention.
The day we’re teleported to after “The God’s Honest Truth” is Will’s wedding day. He begs his father to not tell any of his tales, which Will believes to have no truth behind, but his father ends up telling the tale of the day Will was born and thus creates a rift between the two. The song signifying this rift, “This River Between Us,” is beautiful in both its lyrics and performance. It was a powerful introduction to the story that followed.
Three years later, Will and his wife, Josephine (played by Krystal Joy Brown), are expecting a child—and it’s revealed that Edward has cancer. Will decides to try to set things right between he and his father and what follows is a series of the many tales that Edward told about his life: an exceptionally absurd collection of tales that Will refuses to believe.
Each tale that Edward spins has a unique feel and an equally distinct musical number. We’re taken through swamps, caves, camps, wars, and circuses. It’s a bizarre and unbelievable, but unforgettable journey.
One truly standout scene, especially for its visuals and technical feats, is the swamp. Projection, exotic costumes, and incredible choreography pull this scene together to be one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen onstage. The rest of the audience was equally surprised when what we all assumed to be inanimate tree roots began dancing around onstage before settling into a new pose to be absorbed as set pieces with the foliage projections on their costumes. It’s something that really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
The dialogue is also sharp, especially in the first act. Norbert Leo Butz excels at his comedic timing and the wit is painfully sharp and never lets up. It’s so well delivered and you can really see him as that smooth, fast-talking salesman. He owns the role; it’s nothing but a joy to see him onstage and to experience his tremendous retellings of his life’s story.
The second act takes a bit of a turn and leaves behind some of the wit and humor of the first act and becomes a much more emotional experience. The songs and scenes of the second act are often brutal in their heartrending emotional impact. “Fight the Dragons” is a heartwarming song between Edward and his young son that will undoubtedly elicit several smiles. Following that, though, is a “Showdown” between Will and his father which brings us back down to the more melancholy side of the story.
After “Showdown” is what I believe to be the most powerful scene of the play. After an emotional breakdown, Edward collapses on the floor and his wife sits beside him and lays his head on her lap. A single spotlight illuminates them as Sandra proclaims “I Don’t Need a Roof.” It’s an amazing contrast to the elaborateness of the rest of the play as the entire song is sung in place beneath that single spot. The song emphasizes how she doesn’t need anything but him and the simplicity of the staging is a profound visual display of the meaning behind the lyrics.
The second act still has plenty of humor to break up the heavy emotional depth, but I still had a hard time keeping my eyes dry through the duration. It’s interesting how the show has such contrasting acts, but with all of the constant changing themes between each of Edward’s personal tales, it all actually works.
The music in Big Fish ranges from catchy but unforgettable to truly amazing. Looking through the program, I was drawing blanks when examining the titles of certain numbers—but I don’t remember a single time during the play where I was disappointed with a song; some just failed to impact me. The numbers that really stuck with me, though, were truly well-done. “This River Between Us,” “Time Stops,” and “Daffodils” were easily the best songs of the first act while the previously mentioned “Fight the Dragons” from the second act was heartwarming with “I Don’t Need a Roof” being the most powerful song of the entire experience.
Big Fish tells an interesting personal tale that is larger than life that was accomplished with some great performances framed with incredible tech. Seamless scene transitions with beautiful sets enhanced by modern projection technology set the stage for this fantastic journey. This marriage between practical and projected scenery allowed some truly beautiful effects that really jumped out at the audience. There was always something new to look forward to and it was truly a magical and often mind blowing experience.
Big Fish could have easily been a mess with its varied themes and vastly different acts, but it avoids being a cobbled together attempt at exotic storytelling by being a fantastic and heartwarming journey. It’s as funny as it is heartrending. I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say that Big Fish is the most magical musical I’ve ever seen. The effects, the songs, the story—all of it. Big Fish was expertly done and is an experience I will carry with me for years to come.