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‘Big Fish’ Is a Gorgeous, Charming, Dream Musical: Review

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz star in
Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz star in "Big Fish" in New York, U.S., in this handout photo taken on Sept. 24, 2013. The show is running on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre. Photographer: Paul Kolnik/The Hartman Group PR via Bloomberg

Oct. 7 (Bloomberg) -- I doubt Broadway has ever seen a prettier, more sensuously kinetic musical than Susan Stroman’s adaptation of “Big Fish” set to music by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family.”)

It’s enchanting, especially once it slows down a bit to catch its breath. That doesn’t happen until the second act, but it won’t matter much, even to fans of the Tim Burton movie (or the Daniel Wallace novel that started it all).

When the brooding trees begin their laconic dance before morphing into swamp witches, you know you’re watching a Stroman show. By then, we’ve already fallen under the spell of Edward Bloom, Alabama homeboy, teller of tall tales and creaky jokes, absentee husband and father.

The part is custom made for Norbert Leo Butz, who hasn’t had such a meaty role since “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” His ingratiating singing and dancing bespeak the rare man comfortable in his own skin, and he has that indefinable charismatic spark that defines a star.

Butz is as irresistible as the stories Edward spins, whether wooing the daffodil-bedazzled love of his life, played with well-deep reserves of endurance and charm by Kate Baldwin, or courting in a different way his disappointed son, Will, played with effortless sincerity by Bobby Steggert.

USO Show

We encounter a traveling circus, a towering giant, a trio of dancing elephants seen only from the rear and a leggy USO show that’s pure heavenly Irving Berliniana.

When Will discovers, as Edward lies dying of cancer, a secret mortgage paid for in the name of a woman not his mother, the son begins drawing conclusions about the dad who was never home for sports events.

But “Big Fish” abjures cynicism. Stroman and her A-team of designers -- Julian Crouch, sets; Benjamin Pearcy, projections; Donald Holder, lighting; and costume designer William Ivey Long -- bring us fully into Edward’s ravishing Technicolor worlds.

They treat us to one knockout dance number after another, each with Stroman’s signature flashes of whimsy and humor. Lippa’s USO number is particularly vibrant and a late ballad for Baldwin, “I Don’t Need a Roof,” is genuinely touching.

The show begins with father and son slapping their thighs as a rainfall of fish leaps from the river. It ends on the same banks, the circle they have traveled now satisfyingly complete.

At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; http://www.ticketmaster.com. Rating: ****


What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on the New York City Opera and Elin McCoy on wine.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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