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Big Lies in Murky Waters

November 26th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler reviews Big Fish and Lies My Father Told Me.

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in "Big Fish." (photo: Paul Kolnik)

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in “Big Fish.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)

An unusual theme appears on the New York stage this fall as two musicals, each in its own way, tackles the subjects of fatherhood and deception. Big Fish, a new musical based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and subsequent film, is a splashy hodgepodge of forgettable music by Andrew Lippa set against the backdrop of a fantastical world created by scenic designer Julian Crouch and costume designer William Ivey Long (with some blurry projections by 59 Productions). The story brings to life the bigger-than-life tales of Edward Bloom as recounted to his son. Downtown, you can catch Lies My Father Told Me (based on the works of Ted Allan and film by the same name), a memory play with music that follows the musings of lead character David as he recalls his tender relationship with his grandfather and the volatile verbal abuses of his father. Neither show manages to find its emotional core, despite moments of honest theatricality that occasionally bubble to the surface.

There were big expectations for Big Fish, which opened in early October and has already posted its closing notice. (Its last performance is scheduled for December 29.) With Tony winners Susan Stroman as director/choreographer and Norbert Leo Butz taking on the lead role, it seemed like a sure-fire hit. But Broadway overflows with rough waters and Big Fish never found its audience. As Edward Bloom, Butz pulls out all the stops and may well be one of the hardest working men on Broadway right now as he attempts to carry the show along. I rooted for Bloom as he tackled the mammoth tales of a life fully lived, trying time and again to impart his wide-eyed enthusiasm on his son before it’s too late.

But Andrew Lippa’s uninspired score doesn’t do him any favors. Co-stars Kate Baldwin as his dedicated wife, Sandra, and Bobby Steggert as his beleaguered son, Will, create a compelling and conflicted family unit, but the show’s ensemble appears to be floating in the nether regions of someone’s imagination and none are tethered to the same reality.  During the particular performance that I saw, they appeared vacant and detached (with the exception of cameos from the ever boisterous Brad Oscar and Broadway newcomer Ciara Renée).

Stroman, who achieved astronomical commercial success with The Producers and critical acclaim with The Scottsboro Boys, is overshadowed by the production’s “wow factor.” I knew I was in trouble when the visually engineered trees blowing in the upper reaches of the set enraptured me. The subtlety and intelligence of Stroman’s choreography is lost in The Neil Simon Theatre and a sea of yellow daffodils. Big Fish is a big disappointment and a harrowing reminder that a Broadway hit is a tough fish to catch.

Jonathan Hadley, Russel Arden Koplin and Jonathan Raviv  in "Lies My Father Told Me." (photo: Michael Priest)

Jonathan Hadley, Russel Arden Koplin and Jonathan Raviv in “Lies My Father Told Me.” (photo: Michael Priest)

Unlike Big Fish, the National Yiddish Theatre’s production of Lies My Father Told Me relies on more traditional storytelling and fares marginally better than its uptown counterpart. The story follows the memories of David as he recounts his childhood in an immigrant community in early 20th century Montreal. As older David, Joe Paparella is tasked with the nearly impossible task of narrating a series of scenes that individually resonate but cumulatively doesn’t offer much dramatic arc.

At the center of the conflict is David’s father Harry (Jonathan Raviv), an angry wannabe inventor who is constantly borrowing money and making empty promises. Young David finds solace in his relationship with his grandfather Zaida (Chuck Karel). This is “Tevye-light” and Karel exhibits the mannerisms and anecdotes you’d expect to see in a production of Fiddler on the Roof but without the fire in his belly. Add the grumpy neighbor Mrs. Tanner (overzealously played by Renée Bang Allen), young David’s beaten down mother Annie (Russel Arden Koplin) and uncle (Jonathan Hadley) and a handful of locals and you’ve got yourself a Canadian Street Scene.

Elan Kunin’s score has moments of great theatricality, from the opening “Rags, Clothes, Bottles” to Harry’s rage-filled “What’s With The Knees” and Annie’s wistful 11 o’clock ballad “Maybe Someday,” but the larger company numbers are undermined by choreographer Merete Muenter’s staging. Muenter seems wholly determined to have the cast of actor/singers turn, shuffle and knee-slap their way around John C. Dinning’s towering set. Their movements are often without purpose or motivation—nor do they feel inspired by the era. Director Bryna Wasserman (who also adapted the piece) is unable to take the reigns and ultimately delivers a production filled only with glimmers of truth.

Big Fish
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Through December 29

Lies My Father Told Me
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Avenue
Through December 15

Fresh Catch: Bobby Steggert from Broadway’s “Big Fish”

September 13th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler chats with Bobby Steggert, co-star of the new Broadway musical, Big Fish.

Bobby Steggert (l) and the cast of "Big Fish." (photo: Paul Kolnik)

Bobby Steggert (l) and the cast of “Big Fish.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)

It has all of the ingredients to be this season’s big Broadway hit: Five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman (The Producers, The Scottsboro Boys) at the helm as director and choreographer; Andrew Lippa providing music and lyrics, two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsCatch Me If You Can) and a fantastical story based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and subsequent film directed by Tim Burton. We’re talking Big Fish

Broadway’s latest heartthrob, Bobby Steggert (RagtimeGiant) stars opposite Norbert Leo Butz as a son determined to discover the truth about his father’s fantastical stories. Steggert offers the Broadway Blog an insider’s perspective as to how this bigger-than-life show has come to fruition, what makes it stand apart from the original novel and subsequent film, and what audiences can expect from this heartfelt tale.

Bobby Steggert in "Big Fish." (photo: Paul Kolnik)

Bobby Steggert in “Big Fish.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)

BB: There is big anticipation for Big Fish —how would you describe Andrew Lippa’s adaptation compared to the 2003 film?
BS: Andrew’s score expands upon the soul and romance of an already magical story, and the surprising range covers everything from Edward Bloom’s most outsized theatrical tales to a heart’s quietest moments. And while Tim Burton’s vision was often odd and mysterious, ours uses the classic conventions of theater to spark the imagination. The show somehow feels both much bigger and much more intimate than the film.

BB: Did you read the original 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace in preparation for the role of  Will? If so, what were your impressions of the character as described in the original source material?
BS: Daniel Wallace’s novel was a great source of inspiration to me, especially in his really thorough examination of the ambiguity of death. To lose someone you love is messy, confusing, and bewildering, to say the least. We never know how to handle or confront it until it appears in front of us. It is also an unexpected opportunity for change. Will wants to understand a man he regards as a stranger, and ends up learning the enormous value in his father’s ways. It’s the emotional connective tissue that the book provided and allowed me to make the bigger leaps that are inherent in musicals.

BB: Producer Bill Taylor describes the production as “a fantastic blend of humanity and imagination” — What does this mean to you and where does your character fit into the mix?
BS: Will has the human part down. He is very much of this world, very grounded. He is an investigator, a reporter by trade. He deals in facts and realities. Edward, on the other hand, is made entirely of imagination. What’s wonderful about the interplay between these two men, though, is that Edward’s stories were the ways through which Will, as a young child, grew to be curious in the first place. Edward would conjure up a mermaid or witch, and Will would want to know every detail about their plausibility in the real world. Could a mermaid actually exist? What spells could this witch cast? Will eventually realizes that it was imagination that allowed him to become the man he is today.

bigfishBB: Can you describe the audition process for the role?
BS: I have never worked harder or been more prepared for any audition in my life. I knew that Susan Stroman very much values preparation and full-on commitment. After a couple preliminary auditions, I had to wait almost two months to test out the material with Norbert Leo Butz, who was already cast to play Edward. The waiting was torturous. When we did finally meet, it was quickly clear that we made a good team, and I really credit Norbert for putting me at ease. He is always present, and his example reminded me to do the same. We fell instantly into an exciting chemistry, and I was cast the very next day.

BB: While Edward is this big storyteller, some might consider Will to be the naysayer or the voice of reason. Have you worried about the character being likable (or relatable?) to audiences?
BS: Much of our work during the out of town tryout in Chicago was focused on just that. We learned very quickly that we had to give Will a perspective that was not simply a rejection of his father, but quite the opposite – a desire to understand. The story we are telling here in New York is much more focused around two men who speak different languages, but who love each other dearly. And this allows the audience to relate to us both. It also doesn’t hurt that Andrew Lippa wrote an incredible song for my character in the first act that gives the audience a true insight into Will’s heart.

BB: What is the “biggest fish” story you’ve ever told?
BS: When I was an elementary school, I dreamed of being a writer, and told my friends that I had already published some very successful novels under a secret pseudonym. I’m not sure if I passed it off, but it did allow me to envision the possibilities ahead, and I guess those dreams led me here.

TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: 2012 Fall Preview, The Plays

September 12th, 2012 Comments off

Steppenwolf's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Photo by Michael Brosilow.

If the fall season’s crop of musicals is a sparse and eccentrically planted lot, the roster of plays is lush with big ideas, big stars and must-see events (if a few too many “didn’t we just see that” revivals). So let’s dig into the harvest feast…

"Grace". Image via O+M Co.

An Enemy of the People (September 27): Henrik Ibsen’s sturdy study of personal pressure and politics kicks things off just in time for election season. Class acts Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas play brothers, a mayor and a doctor, on opposite sides of an environmental disaster in the making. (Yeah, this was written when?)

Grace (October 4): As I’ve said before…Paul Rudd. I lerve him. Toss in the always magnetic Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and my interest is more than peaked for this surreal comedy-drama about a couple’s plans for religious-themed motels and their less than faithful neighbor.

Running on Empty (October 9): Comedian and professional ranter Lewis Black brings his stand-up to Broadway for a week of performances.

Cyrano de Bergerac (October 11): The French war horse (no, not that one) gets trotted out for another display of witty banter, actorly showmanship and much-needed rhinoplasty. Tony-winner Douglas Hodge (La Cage aux Folles) takes on the title role in a Roundabout Theatre revival.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (October 13): The revelatory Steppenwolf production starring playwright (and seriously accomplished actor) Tracy Letts and the incomparable Amy Morton finally makes it to Broadway. Check my review from when I saw it at Arena Stage last year and tell me you aren’t a wee bit excited to see the Albee classic again.

Read more…

A Free Broadway Concert, A Cate Blanchett Return and More Theater News

September 7th, 2012 Comments off

It might be nice if they eased us into a new theater season but, no, it’s full speed ahead! So today’s news roundup is going to be a light speed round the world tour…

  • New York: The 20th Broadway on Broadway Concert is this Sunday at 11:30 am in Times Square. A right of passage for all Broadway fans (like your Mandy Patinkin phase), the event is free and set to feature musical performances from Bring It On, Newsies, Once, a sneak peek at Season 2 of Smash and more.
  • Jennifer Coolidge. Image via PlaybillVault.com.

    Los Angeles: What I wouldn’t give to be in the City of Angels this Sunday to see the 25th anniversary reading of Steel Magnolias. A benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the cast includes Alexis Bledel, Frances Conroy, Elizabeth Perkins, Annie Potts and…wait for it…Jennifer Coolidge. Seriously, get me on a Virgin (flight, that is) to LAX stat ’cause Coolidge is divine.

  • Chicago: According to Playbill.com, my Tony-winning talent-crush Norbert Leo Butz is officially headlining the musical adaptation of Big Fish in the Windy City spring of 2013. The world premiere based on the 2003 Ewan McGregor (speaking of crushes) fantasy will be directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by the original screenwriter John August.
  • Detroit & Pittsburgh: Producers announced impending Broadway runs for two new musicals. Motown: The Musical, written by and based on the life of record label founder Berry Gordy, will jukebox its way into the Lunt-Fontanne on April 14, 2013. A few months later in August, that gritty film expose of steelworkers with ballet dreams Flashdance is hauling its welding tools and leg warmers onto the Great White Way. This follows a separate tour that will begin in its setting, Pittsburgh, January 2013. What a feeling, indeed
  • Richard Roxburgh & Cate Blanchett in "Uncle Vanya". Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

  • Sydney: Speaking of hopping a Virgin, the 2013 season announcement for the Sydney Theater Company contains two flight-worthy productions. First up, an adaptation of Kate Grenville’s beautiful novel The Secret River by playwright Andrew Bovell (of Lincoln Center’s acclaimed When the Rain Stops Falling). And, building on the exquisite Uncle Vanya that came through New York a few weeks back, Cate Blanchett will be starring in Jean Genet’s The Maids opposite French icon Isabelle Huppert. Be still my film goddess-loving heart.
  • London-ish: The British smash War Horse posted a closing notice for its stateside run at Lincoln Center following a summer dip in ticket sales. You’ve got plenty of time to cry yourself silly, though; the final performance is scheduled for January 6, 2013
  • Heaven: The new Theresa Rebeck (Seminar, Smash) play Dead Accounts revealed its complete cast and I am on cloud nine. Seriously, this just shot to the top of my must see list for fall. Joining the previously announced Norbert Leo Butz (him again) and Katie Holmes (work that divorce) will be the deliriously good Jayne Houdyshell (Follies, Well), the handsome and charming Josh Hamilton (The Coast of Utopia) and, I’m giddy here, the film scene stealer Judy Greer (The Descendants).

Finally, if you’d like to make sure new and original music theater finds its way to the stage, here’s a simple and inexpensive way to play your part. This year’s NAMT Festival of New Musicals is raising money to support demo recordings for the eight new shows being presented (full disclosure: I co-wrote one of them). There’s only a day left to contribute at Rocket Hub but as little as $5 will help artists focus on the writing and allow fresh songs to be heard.