It’s fitting that when children look back on “Big Fish” at Neil Simon Theatre, they’ll remember it as magical, with larger-than-life sequences of light, sound, dance and song. And that’s just how it should be for one’s first Broadway experience, so as to ensure the next generation of lifelong patrons. Sure, kids might not understand what’s happening in the play beyond the stunning numbers; but for adults, there’s a tense and emotional underpinning that is likely to provoke both laughter and tears before the night is done. It’s an often-missed balance in supposedly family-friendly musical fare.
But “Big Fish” is really good — if not great. All of the stops are pulled to make a giant, werewolf, assassin, circus, tornado and flood come to life on a stage that must be shared with the full orchestra (the pit has been co-opted by a mermaid). John August’s book is fully fleshed, littered with laugh-out-loud jokes and poignant moments alike. Andrew Lippa’s score is solid, even if the lyrics are too often forgettable. The best segment has to be the chapter titled “The Witch,” wherein a swamp-dwelling spell-caster (Ciara Renee) sets in motion the string of events that will lead our protagonist to his wife, his son and, most importantly, a way to be content with an ordinary life.
Norbert Leo Butz may not be as spry as he once was, but as the middle-aged storytelling father Edward Bloom, the only thing holding him back is a wavering Alabama accent. Bobby Seggert, as his unrelenting son, knows just how and when to save his character from what could be an irresolvable unlikeability (if not only because Butz’s Bloom, his Oedipal nemesis, is so helplessly likeable). The leading ladies (Kate Baldwin, Krystal Joy Brown, Kirsten Scott), loved by these two aforementioned male leads, are all distinct personalities, in the best possible way.
This success, based on the book by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 Tim Burton movie, is not without its flaws. Small technical issues were consistently irksome: Why can we see characters entering and exiting? Why are so many details lavish and precise, yet visible cords hang the moon? Why can we hear set pieces being moved in and out behind the scrims? Why is there a distinct and distracting possibility that the witch’s crystal ball is the same light-up plastic bauble that they sell in the gift shop at Cracker Barrel? But this is nitpicking. And isn’t it exactly in line with the play, about the willful suspension of disbelief, to overlook these technicalities in favor of the, well, bigger picture?
We’re willing to — because Susan Stroman’s “Big Fish” is, by Broadway standards, a trophy catch.
Tickets on sale through March 9
Neil Simon Theatre,
250 W. 52ndSt.