Monday, November 11, 2013

Two New Musicals: Big Fish and The Landing

Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin in Big Fish

The new musical adaptation of Big Fish has a deluxe, hyper-bright look and some of the niftiest stagecraft I’ve seen on a Broadway stage. The characters who will pop up later in the stories spun by the hero, Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz), are projected onto witches’ cloaks; a field of daisies – Edward’s gift to the girl of his dreams, Sandra (Kate Baldwin) – is transformed into a 3D backdrop; the set designer (Julian Crouch), the costume designer (William Ivey Long) and the projection designer ( Benjamin Pearcy) assemble witty trompe l’oeil collages. The director-choreographer, Susan Stroman, comes up with fresh ideas for one number after another; her work is a compendium of dance styles. The problem is the uninspired musical at the center of all this visual magic.

Tim Burton’s irresistible 2003 movie, which John August culled from a Daniel Wallace novel, invented a Yankee version of magic realism to tell the story of Bloom (Albert Finney), whose estranged son Will (Billy Crudup) is trying for a deathbed reconciliation. Will’s longtime complaints about his father are that he has hogged the spotlight on every occasion – even Will’s wedding – and that his fanciful stories are extravagant lies. Since, in Will’s opinion, they create a smokescreen around Edward’s true persona, Will, in his thirties, still has no idea who his father really is, and time is running out for him to discover the answer. What he only figures out at the eleventh hour is that Edward’s stories (which are dramatized in the movie with Ewan McGregor as his juvenile counterpart) are metaphors for a young man’s rites of passage, his own variations on classic coming-of-age fairy tales. His sped-up growing process and his bonding with a giant who becomes his companion of the road symbolize an adventurous adolescent’s sense that he’s outgrown the safe, comfortable small town of his childhood. His indentured service to a circus ringmaster, who pays him in clues about Sandra that will help him court her, is one of two fables about the meaning of true love and what we have to do to earn it. The second is the title story, about a gigantic fish that swallowed a ring (a wedding ring, of course) and that Edward must catch. Ironically, the pragmatist Will is a writer by profession, yet he fights his father’s imagination for years and has to learn how to interpret his tall tales.

Matthew McGrory and Ewan McGregor in Tim Burton's Big Fish

August wrote the book of the musical, too, but he’s thrown out most of the ideas that made his screenplay special. Will (Bobby Steggert) isn’t a writer; in fact, unless I missed a reference, we never find out what he does for work, though we’re told that his pregnant wife Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown) is a well-known TV news anchor. The stories here aren’t Edward’s way of explaining his own life through archetypes; they’re meant to inspire Will. (Just what the American musical theatre doesn’t need is another syrupy inspirational musical. I’m still trying to get Rent and Wicked out of my head.) August hasn’t included the big fish story at all, though a cute prop fish leaps out of the cloth river covering the orchestra pit – the musicians are ensconced behind the set – in the opening number and again in the finale. So presumably the only reason the musical is called Big Fish is that if it weren’t, audiences wouldn’t know it was based on a famous movie. I couldn’t help thinking of the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which eliminates the final twist in the James M. Cain plot, so that despite the title, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review, the postman only rings once.

The songs for Big Fish were written by Andrew Lippa, who’s produced one good score, for the off-Broadway musical The Wild Party. (The Jazz Age verse novel by Joseph Moncure March generated two musicals in the same theatre season, and the other one, by Michael John LaChiusa, opened on Broadway in a lavish production, so that’s the one that got all the attention. Lippa’s was the good one.) Here he comes up with maybe three decent songs – the best is the penultimate first-act tune, “Closer to Her” – but there are sixteen others, and they’re mediocre at best. The music is in the imitation-country style that’s inexplicably popular in musicals these days, while the lyrics run to “In your face I see a lifetime / In this place I feel at ease.” (If that segue doesn’t make sense to you, you should hear “Showdown,” a baffling number at a western bar with TV-style cowboys.) After Into the Woods, I wouldn’t have thought it necessary for anyone to write a song like “Fight the Dragons,” the sort of sappy, sententious number that makes me cringe even when Sondheim does it.

Norbert Leo Butz caught my attention in Stroman’s misbegotten Thou Shalt Not, where his character got killed off in act one but returned as a ghost in act two – probably because Stroman and the writers hoped he might resurrect the musical. He was a firecracker in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (opposite John Lithgow) and Catch Me If You Can, but in Big Fish he’s oddly passive. He only comes to life fully when August gives him something a little darker to play – as when Edward throws Will out of his sick room or (in a flashback) kisses the high-school sweetheart (Kirsten Scott) he’s reconnected with and then pulls back in alarm because Sandra is the only woman he’s ever wanted. Baldwin has the right glamor and vivacity for Sandra, the Jessica Lange part, but Steggert, who also played her son in last season’s Giant, is dull all over again, only in a much larger part. I was knocked out by Krystal Joy Brown in Leap of Faith but all she gets to do in Big Fish is look gorgeous. The only actor in the supporting cast who stands out is Brad Oscar as Amos Calloway, the ringmaster with a secret werewolf identity (the Danny DeVito role) – and he gets to duet with Butz on “Closer to Her.” A musical of Burton’s picture sounded like a promising notion. It should have been a hell of a lot better.

David Hyde Pierce and Julia Murney in The Landing

The Landing is comprised of three small-scale one-act musicals, with music by John Kander and book and lyrics by Greg Pierce, that share a cast of four: David Hyde Pierce (Greg’s uncle), Paul Anthony Stewart, Julia Murney, and a boy named Frankie Seratch. In the first, “Andra,” a math geek who’s bullied by his schoolmates forms a friendship with a carpenter working on his parents’ house who turns him on to mythology and astronomy. The second, “The Brick,” is about a woman who becomes obsessed with a brick supposedly taken from the wall in front of which Al Capone and his men gunned down their adversaries in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Finally, “The Landing” is about a gay couple who adopt a bizarrely well behaved child who turns out to be preternaturally perceptive. “Andra” has the best narrative, “The Landing” the best music (wedded to the wettest plot), and Hyde Pierce is hilarious as the brick, done up as a 1920s dandy, in “The Brick,” though the one-act itself is incomprehensible. But nothing in the show is interesting enough to make a trip to the Vineyard Theater worthwhile. Walter Bobbie directed and Josh Rhodes choreographed.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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