Producing a musical based on a movie based on a book, the 2003 film having only grossed $66 million domestically, ranking 43rd for that year, takes some serious chutzpah. The producers must have been sold on a huge leap of faith: that Big Fish is going to translate so well on stage compared to the film, it won’t need to rely on a built-in audience the way other musicals have (Dirty Dancing, The Lion King, The Addams Family, etc.). Watching one of the final performances of Big Fish’s pre-Broadway run in Chicago last evening in a mostly empty balcony, I got the sense that the show will need to be tweaked in order to fulfill its promise, and even that might not be enough. I actually enjoyed the show a great deal and was happy to have spent the money to see it. But spectacular stage sets with creative use of multimedia, superb acting and singing by the three leads, and some fine melodies aside, there are three improvements the musical needs to make before it debuts in New York in September.
First, the show could benefit from a few reprises to help ingrain the finer of composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa’s melodies into the audience’s minds. Some tunes are one-offs, pleasant little ditties that serve their purpose in one take (both ”I Know what you Want” and “Bigger” hit the mark beautifully), but others, most notably “This River Between Us” and “Daffodils,” could have benefitted from a reprisal, even if just in passing within a different tune. Motifs are important in musicals or in any other extended work, and Big Fish suffers without them.
Second, the ending of the first act, “Daffodils,” aims very high but falls just a bit flat. I could tell what they were going to do minutes before it arrived, and I sensed that they were attempted to hit the high mark set by musicals such as Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” or, more probable, Sunday in the Park with George, when Georges Seurat’s masterpiece is displayed in all its radiant glory, but the field of Daffodils didn’t provide the lift they were meant to. The result certainly can’t be classified as a Spinal Tap moment (when a miniature Stonehenge arrives on stage to the embarrassment of the band), but it should have made a bigger impact. This will need to be rectified in New York.
Third is most problematic. Like the film, the stage production of Big Fish lacks a plot. There is nothing particularly dramatic to move the story forward. A father with a penchant to tell tall takes and a son who wants to see the real man behind the stories don’t see eye to eye. Big deal. Additional conflict is required to keep the audience engaged. There is a reveal at the end of Act One that’s meant to advance the plot, but to me, it wasn’t terribly important or interesting. Suspected infidelity? From a son who already doesn’t respect his father? That’s hardly enough to fill a second act.
I’m not suggesting that the story be something it isn’t. For me, fictional works of realistic people in realistic situations are always more interesting than fanciful creations, so why not throw some additional tension into the story? Both of the wives, Sandra Bloom and Josephine Bloom, are left to play the role of supportive, one-dimensional characters: never bothered, always understanding, unrealistically wise. How about making them human? One or two additional scenes – a conflict between the son and his new bride, or between the son and his mother – would likely be enough to keep Big Fish from feeling like a day of casting on a calm lake.
Big Fish is clearly a labor of love for writer John August, Andrew Lippa and director Susan Stroman. A few more waves, or even a white cap or two, might be enough to turn this beautifully done production into a sustainable Broadway musical.