I don’t go to the big Broadway in Chicago shows very often. This is usually a cost issue, but also I was spoiled by growing up so close to New York, I know national tour and regional companies of Broadway shows are very talented, but I can’t get over my “real thing” prejudice. (Note: This is in absolutely no way meant to be a denigration of the Chicago theater world. I’m only talking about out-of-town shows visiting the big downtown theaters. As a whole I love our theater world and do not in any way see it as a second-rate or “farm team.” Seriously articles like that one make me want to scream/boycott the entire city of New York.) So when I started getting Goldstar e-mails about tickets to Big Fish, Susan Stroman’s new show headed for Broadway in the fall, I just deleted them. Until I saw the name “Norbert Leo Butz” on a CTA poster for the show.
I love NLB. Because of this:
And this (with bonus Aaron Tveit!):
Oh and this:
(Because apparently every musical theater actor I love that was old enough during the run of this revival played th Emcee at some point.)
But I have never gotten to see him live before, so I got a very reasonably priced discount ticket to a very high balcony seat to last night’s performance of Big Fish, and it was definitely worth the trek up all those ornate staircases at the Oriental. The show is an adaptation of the 2003 movie, which I haven’t seen (expect a ‘Classics from the Queue’ on that at some point) but I remember hearing good things about. The story of NLB’s Edward Bloom’s tales translates really well to the stage as the fantasies, ranging from an enchanted forest, to a big top circus, to a wild west kangaroo court, can slide on and off stage blending effectively his fictions with his practical son (played by Bobby Steggert)’s “reality.”
The changing settings also gives Stroman the opportunity to create an old school revue without abandoning plot. There’s everything from a WWII USO number, to saloon girls, and even an elephant kick line. Certain elements could be called derivative I guess, but the show seems to be winking at them. The big production numbers are so much fun that I chose to read it as homage to Broadway of old.
This show isn’t perfect, but it’s an out of town try out, so it doesn’t quite need to be yet. The special effects, while at times mesmerizing (the meadow of “Daffodils” was so realistic I couldn’t tell what was projected and what was tangible) sometimes felt really flimsy – the flood sequence especially evoked an old school screen saver rather than a catastrophe. But the cast, not just NBL but also his partner (and Northwestern alum) Kate Baldwin, belt their hearts out and I was sobbing my eyes out by the end. Judging by the sniffling around me I wasn’t the only one.
Here’s NLB and Kate Baldwin singing their love-at-first-sight number (introduced by Stroman):
The show runs in Chicago through May 5th at the Oriental Theater 24 W Randolph Ave, and will open in New York in October.