“Big Fish”, directed by Tim Burton and starring some faves of mine (Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard, Danny DeVito (go back and watch it’s true)), was a great movie that screamed out to me for an amazing big spectacular Broadway musical. That story would be perfect for one, right? It would be hard to match the magic of the movie but I had faith that it could because theatre is the best. Unfortunately, the Broadway bow it got in 2013 wasn’t very good. It was hugely fun and entertaining and I enjoyed it, but not as good as it should have been with that source material. The book was messy and Andrew Lippa’s score was mostly unmemorable. After a few years and a lot of retooling, ‘Big Fish’ is back, now in London, new and improved. I think. I’m still not sure.
My eagerness to love the show back in 2013 may have been responsible for some of my enjoyment back then. It starred my favorite musical theatre actor, Norbert Leo Butz, so I was working as hard as I could while sitting in a seat in the dark to love it, and no one should have to work that hard to love a show. It was joyous but inconsistently, flawed and kind of flat a lot of the time. The music felt mostly uninspired, but a few songs were stellar. The book was a bit messy, but had enough good feeling and intention for the movie’s amazing story to make it okay. But most of all, Norbert put everything he had into his performance, so much energy and love and emotion, that that’s what you remembered and loved about the show. Norbert is so amazing, he blinds you from noticing anything lackluster or actually bad. So when the London revival/rehashing this fall announced that it would star Kelsey Grammer, I was extremely skeptical. How on earth could old Republican buffoon Kelsey Grammer do what Norbert in all his energy and youth did? How is he going to distract us from noticing that the show doesn’t live up to its potential and is kind of flat? Answer: He doesn’t – because the show is entirely redone and suits him better. John August, who wrote the movie and the book of the musical, clearly has been working hard on this. I missed Norbert’s energy (and voice) the whole time, but I think mayyyyybeeee it makes more sense this way. It’s not as much fun, and it’s a smaller, more delicately emotional show, but I think – I’m pretty sure – it’s hard to say because Norbert – that it’s a smarter, better done show now.
I knew to expect changes with this production, but I thought maybe it would be a few lines here or there, maybe new and better songs. But I almost gasped when the very first song of the show was “Fight the Dragons”, in which Edward Bloom (Grammer) sings to his young son about why he lives such a fantastic fantasy life. I remembered this one because it’s the best song from the show and I listen to it regularly. So I remembered that on Broadway it came in the middle of the show. In this new version, it OPENS the show! I realized then just how different this was going to be, and I was shocked and scared and I wanted to break my #1 rule and TALK TO PEOPLE ABOUT IT but mostly I was intrigued. The new framing device was quickly evident: Instead of jumping back and forth between present day and past, showing Edward as a yoot as he embarks on all the fake-sounding adventures he tells his son about and having the same actor (Norbert) jump from old man to young teenager and in between Edward (he’s amazing) and do everything he could to sell it to you that he could be all these ages, Kelsey’s Edward just was the old man version. In his old, dying state, he shared his memories with the dream-ghost young version of his now-grown son, Will. So Kelsey would be like ‘oh hey little ghost boy version of my Will who now hates me, remember when I met that witch’ and then ANOTHER ACTOR played young Edward and met the witch and stuff. I know, serious changes, guys. But it is so much better because no one is going to believe Kelsey as an 18-year-old with a sparkle in his eye. His sparkle died long ago.
Despite my reluctance to admit that it worked to have a different actor play young Edward (or ‘Story Edward’ as they’re calling it), it was hard to stay mad at you bro because Story Edward was maybe the best performer on the stage. Jamie Muscato, who was great a few years ago in ‘Dogfight’ here at Southwark Playhouse (still one of the best productions of the hundos I’ve seen in London), sings wonderfully and charms as the young version of Edward, saving Kelsey from having to get up from his hospital bed. I was so worried that we’d have to listen to Kelsey’s passable but not fantastic singing voice for most of the score. Having people who could actually sing musically theatrey play important roles was a huge relief. I sound mean to Kelsey but he knows he is an actor who sings, not a singer who acts.
This same device of course was used for Sandra, Edward’s wife, as Edward’s courtship of her constitutes a big chunk of the flashback/memory/story plot. Present day Sandra was played by Clare Burt, who was nice and fine, and Story Sandra was the spunky ginger Laura Baldwin, who looked like she grew up taking musical theatre classes, very textbook proficiency and skill. Good job ginger spice. You’d think this would mean Laura got to shine with big songs and stuff, but for some reason they gave the slowest most boringest most unnecessary song to Old Sandra, and it was bo-rang. Sorry Clare. You’re good and stuff this just should have been cut. The relationship between Edward and Sandra as oldies is believable because we see their backstory, so the attempt to shore up their current feelings instead of showing us more of what their love is based on failed for me dawg.
The weirdest thing that worked for me in this production was that Josephine, grown-up Will’s fiancé who I think had one line in the original production and could have easily been cut, was my favorite. I think it was really because the actress, Frances McNamee (omg that is so the last name you give when you want to give a fake name and can’t think of shit), was so wonderful and made a fully realized character with what little she is given. I so bought every single one of her reactions and facial expressions. She clearly deserves much bigger and better parts and I would totally go see a show if I knew she was in it. It was like obviously good acting which is very exciting to see every so often instead of like ‘oh hey look I’m in a play’ acting. You don’t know what I mean.
As grown-up Will, Matthew Seadon-Young was pretty decent. It’s kind of a thankless role because you’re like, hey dude your dad seems really FUN and yeah he wasn’t really there for you growing up but like, he has good stories and your mom did a good job so like take a chill pill. And then he finds out how good a person his dad was, just to other people, and you’re like see I told you you should have taken that stick out of your bum. I said bum! Hashtag so british. Anyway so it’s a little thankless but he did a good job making us feel for his predicament (wanting to still resent his absent father even though he’s dying) despite our instinct to shout ‘just be niceeeee he hella old.’ And Kelsey is so winning and likable and such a good actor that it made it hard to agree with Will that he sucked.
So the family relationships and characters were pretty well done, which is why this production felt more based in emotion and not in the fun spectacle aspect of the movie. Both are important sides of the story to tell, and while Broadway sold the spectacle amazingly and some of the emotion, this production sold the family story and emotion and less so the spectacle. The spectacle, of course, being the crazy characters of Edward’s stories, the ones we don’t know whether to believe he actually knew. The giant, the witch, the mermaid, all the people in the circus he worked in. This is a difficult balance to achieve with this show, and I think that’s why no production has been able to really achieve it properly. Broadway leaned too heavily to one side; this one tried to make up for that but ended up overcompensating on the other side. The actors were all good – Landi Oshinowo (almost my name!) as the witch has a kickass voice erma erma, and Dean Nolan as the giant Karl was solid – but in the small space with no effects there’s really only so much you can leave to the imagination. And so the pendulum swung to the side of focusing on the family dynamics and stuck there. They made up for this in very clever ways, like having the witch’s costume and her forest made from hospital supplies – because that’s where Edward is recounting her tale – and I loved that, but it didn’t lead to that same level of impressive drama that you want. This was hardest for me in my favorite part from the Broadway show – when Norbert I mean Edward sings “Daffodils” as he proposes to Sandra. On Broadway, thousands of daffodils ‘grew’ from the stage and all around and it was pure magic. I remember gasping. Here, that couldn’t happen, and they made up for it by having lots of deliveries of daffodils to Edward’s hospital room happening. So, again, it was a clever choice and made it sweet, but I can’t say I didn’t miss the thrill of all those flowers growing out of a stage.
Honestly the best part of the show is Forbes Masson, and not just because of that name. He played a few comedic roles, first as Don, Edward’s high school nemesis and a blithering idiot who in a movie (a different movie) would be played by Randy Quaid, and then as Amos, the leader of the circus where young Edward works. He was flipping hilarious and it’s worth seeing the show just to laugh at his dumb jokes. The circus parts were more enjoyable because he was so ridiculously fun and honestly I will hold ‘The Greatest Showman’ and Hugh Jackman to a higher standard because of it.
A few things fell seriously flat. First of all, there was no mermaid. Edward makes a big deal about how he once met a mermaid, and they cut that scene. Sure he sees a girl in the hospital in a wheelchair and sees a flash of a mermaid tail on her, but if you blinked you missed it, and that doesn’t count. The other thing was that one of the ensemble girls playing one of his high school classmates held a box with a weird cat on it in all her scenes. In the programme she’s listed I shit you not as ‘girl with cat’. There is no reason for this. This was just a dumb sight gag that no one even realized was supposed to be funny, and I feel bad for the girl holding that dumb box. Whoever came to work the day that decision was approved was flying high like Mindy St. Claire.
But those are really the only bad things I can point to. The creators clearly worked really hard to improve this show, and although apparently this show requires a choice between family-based emotion and story-based spectacle, I think they made the right choice while still telling a complete tale. So overall, it was a lovely night at the theatre. Everyone in the audience seemed to be rooting for the show to succeed, and there was a bit of bawling at the end and not just on my part. However, this might be the one time where a piece is better on film than in the theatre. I know I can’t believe I said it but it has happened, and despite multiple attempts, the show really can’t match the movie. It’s a great time in the theatre, it really is, and it’s an enjoyable show and I recommend that you see it if you can, but the film is just better.
The Other Palace, having been remodeled and rebranded by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, looks mostly the same except for one very important change - the backstage bathrooms are now actually signed so people sitting in the front section know about them. It's cool to go through this hallway where the racks of costumes are stationed but even cooler to have a human-sized bathroom with no lines! Watch for the ice cream seller at intermission though who for some reason has to position his cart right in front of that door to the hallway eye roll eye roll eye roll.
At this theatre, the actors just come out through the lobby so yay you can wait inside! It's a little awkward because without fail, every time I've seen a show here, the actor's friends or family members are waiting with you and you're like oh I just want to be weird, sorry. But they're usually all nice and everyone was happy to sign or take pictures. Kelsey did not come out though, which is dumb not because I care but because the staff made everyone waiting make a single file line for him, and I was like 'but I just want the others' and they were like 'tough' and then he didn't even come out and we were in a line for no reason.