‘Big Fish’: not even Norbert Leo Butz can save it

BigFishThe talent and energy of Norbert Leo Butz is reminiscent of two musical comedy stars of the past — Jerry Orbach and Robert Preston.

Butz has an everyman quality coupled with an obvious love of performing that makes him irresistible to watch on a stage and a gift to any producer who gets him to commit to a show.

The performer already has two Tonys to his credit — for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me If You Can” — and a long list of other memorable shows, including “Rent” and the original off-Broadway production of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years.” He also was the original Fiyero in “Wicked.”

One of the saddest elements of the new musical “Big Fish” is that even Butz can’t save this poorly put together adaptation of the Tim Burton film. The actor is on stage in nearly every scene — working his ass off — but the predictable book, unimaginative staging and less-than-mediocre score prove to be impossible obstacles. It’s no wonder that the show will be closing at the end of next month at a complete loss of somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million.BigFish1

The reteaming of Butz with director-choreographer Susan Stroman reminded me of the long-forgotten bomb that they worked on together in 2001, “Thou Shalt Not” (the Harry Connick Jr. musical opened in the wake of 9/11, when Broadway business went bust, but nothing could have saved the painfully dreary show).

It was a credit to Butz that he did such good work in the midst of that disaster that he was Tony nominated for it at the end of the season.

“Big Fish” isn’t as bad as “Thou Shalt Not” — few shows are — but it’s one of those unfortunate musicals which play like a bad idea indifferently executed. You come out of the Neil Simon Theatre wondering how anyone imagined the show would click with little but a hard-working star to recommend it.

The musical follows the film’s plot of a tall-tale spinner from Alabama, Edward Bloom, who has lost the respect of his grown son, Will (Bobby Steggert), after years of seemingly putting his overactive fantasy life ahead of his son and long-suffering wife Sanda (Kate Baldwin).

Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know where the plot is headed — the son finally recognizing the kindness and the imagination of his hard-working dad — and Stroman and company do nothing to freshen the live-your-dream cliches. It’s a male version of “Mame” without any of the fun (or the good tunes). 

You would think that at the very least the flimsy premise would have allowed Stroman to whip up a series of show-stopping numbers, but there isn’t a decently sustained dance sequence in the whole show.

Act 2 opens promisingly with a World War II pastiche number, “Red, White and True,” but Stroman wastes a chorus line of talented hoofers with a ridiculous, attemped-assassination-in-a-nightclub plot that keeps interrupting the dancers. We can hear that the women are wearing tap shoes, so why not let them cut loose for a few minutes?

“Big Fish” is one long sinking feeling, due to all of the talent and time (and money) wasted on a hopeless piece of material.

Joe Meyers