'Big Fish' review: Ambitious musical, not exciting

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Norbert Leo Butz, Zachary Unger, Sarrah Strimel and

Norbert Leo Butz, Zachary Unger, Sarrah Strimel and Company in "Big Fish," a new musical directed by Susan Stroman, opening at the Neil Simon Theatre in Manhattan on Oct. 6, 2013. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

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There is something so joyous -- inspirational, even -- about Norbert Leo Butz. The triple-threat actor with the two Tonys and the perversely anti-charismatic name has an exuberance that never feels even slightly dishonest and an intelligence that refuses to condescend to his most outrageous characters.

And here he is again, taking a chance with original material instead of hanging back with greatest-hits Broadway. In other words, it's a pleasure to watch him engage in the fantastical adventures of both the healthy and the dying Edward Bloom, irrepressible teller of tall stories and bad jokes in "Big Fish."

In fact, there are many pleasures in this ambitious but disappointing adaptation of Daniel Wallace's Walter Mitty-esque novel and Tim Burton's 2003 movie about a father,s inability to make a truthful connection with his serious son.

The cast is enormously appealing. Susan Stroman's sure-handed, imaginative direction and big, strapping choreography zip us through the small-town salesman's epic imaginings of witches and Alabama swamps, mermaids in the river and giants in a cave, not to mention cowboys and circuses and floods. And the scenery by master illusionist Julian Crouch ("Shockheaded Peter") finds astonishing magic from little more than colored lights and projections on wooden planks and fabric.

So it's crushing to realize, early on, that this gentle, sincere, beautiful-looking show is deadly dull. Author John August, who also wrote the screenplay, strings sentimentality and hackneyed picaresque escapades together as if they were equivalent balls on a string. Tension never builds, even when Edward's son Will (Bobby Steggert) tries to unravel the father's secret life.

The music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa ("The Addams Family," "The Wild Party") are old-time Broadway throwbacks -- melodic and serviceable genre songs that seldom support the individuality of the characters with original voices. Kate Baldwin, excellent as Edward's lyrical, loving wife, does have a heart-tugging ballad, "I Don't Need a Roof," as her husband is dying of cancer. Even then, however, we can finish the obvious rhymes before she does.

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William Ivey Long's costumes have more wit than the book and score. Stroman, always a wizard with props, can make rubber fish leap out of the river whenever anyone does a special stomping, slapping dance. And we are grateful, yet again, for her preference for healthy women dancers instead of dainty chorines.

But Edward's message is that we should all make ourselves the heroes of our stories. Too subtle to be a family show and too toothless for grown-ups, this story could use a hero all its own.

WHAT "Big Fish"

WHERE Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.

INFO $49-$142; 877-250- 2929; bigfishthemusical.com


BOTTOM LINE Ambitious but dull

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