Fantasy wages war with reality in Big Fish, a delightfully old-fashioned musical based on Daniel Wallace’s beloved novel (and Tim Burton’s 2003 film). In one corner, there is Edward Bloom (the sensational Norbert Leo Butz), a traveling salesman from backwater Alabama given to spinning tall tales about mermaids and giants to fill in the gaps in his otherwise ordinary life. In the other, there is his son, Will (Bobby Steggert), a just-the-facts journalist who’s never really connected with his often absent, now-ailing dad and faces the prospect of fatherhood himself.
It’s no spoiler to say that imagination wins out, particularly in director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s visually lavish production, which boasts dancing circus elephants, a mermaid who pops up from the orchestra pit, and tree trunks that ingeniously morph into a coven of witches. (Don Holder’s lighting, William Ivey Long’s costumes, and Benjamin Pearcy’s projections are often wondrous to behold.)
With his stocky build, short stature, and thinning hair, Butz is an unlikely leading man, but he has the loose-limbed energy and charisma of a young Dick Van Dyke. The radiant Kate Baldwin is underused as his sympathetic wife, though she brings her silken voice to the beautiful second-act ballad, ”I Don’t Need a Roof” — one of the highlights of the mostly tuneful score by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family). Steggert is less compelling as their not-so-likable son, particularly in the problematic second act saddled with several superfluous fantasy numbers and an ending that packs less of an emotional wallop than it should.
For the most part, though, Big Fish finds theatrically inventive ways to reel audiences into its central love story. In this case, it isn’t boy-meets-girl but father-hooks-son. And Edward Bloom is quite a catch. B+