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Article posted: 4/22/2013 5:30 AM

Family-friendly 'Big Fish' reels in audiences

By Barbara Vitello

"Big Fish," the Broadway-bound musical that opened Friday at Chicago's Oriental Theatre, should have no problem reeling in audiences when it arrives in New York this fall.

Fanciful, family-friendly and affectionate, the show inspired by Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel and Tim Burton's 2003 film has the right bait: a funny, poignant book by "Big Fish" screenwriter John August, and lush, lyrical music by Andrew Lippa ("The Addams Family").

Broadway-ready with a bit of country flavor, Lippa's score boasts several gems, including "Time Stops," an exquisite ode to love at first sight whose second act companion, "I Don't Need a Roof," is a moving testament to love that has stood the test of time. Grandly arranged by Larry Hochman and played by the onstage orchestra, conducted by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Lippa's score is beautifully sung by the ensemble led by Norbert Leo Butz. The ideally-cast Butz -- whose splendid performance demonstrates why he's a two-time Tony Award winner -- stars as traveling salesman and absent father Edward Bloom, a spinner of tall tales. Playing his devoted wife Sandra is the lovely Kate Baldwin, a Northwestern University graduate with a gorgeous voice and acting chops to match.

Then there are the top-tier and Tony Award-winning designers led by director/choreographer Susan Stroman, a creative storyteller who artfully transitions this fish tale from reality to fantasy. Credit for conjuring the fantastical goes to designers Julian Crouch (whose rustic frame house serves as backdrop for Bloom's yarns); Donald Holder (responsible for the evocative lighting); Benjamin Pearcy who produced the imaginative projections; and William Ivey Long, creator of the show's inventive, elemental costumes. Their seamlessly integrated special effects produce truly inspired visuals, where tree roots transform into witches and a boy's bedroom morphs into a fish's gullet. Kudos all around.

But for all its spectacle, "Big Fish" is essentially a simple story about love and reconciliation. It's about dreaming big so as to not live small. And it's about what constitutes a well-lived life.

Sentimental? Yes. "Big Fish" trades in familiar platitudes and blunts its edges. The ending comes straight out of "It's a Wonderful Life" But under Stroman -- who crafts intimate scenes as masterfully as she choreographs big production numbers -- "Big Fish" earns emotion honestly. Considering how easily a show about strained family relationships and the pursuit of reconciliation could get caught in a mawkish undertow, that's saying something.

The first act bedazzles. The second act tugs at the heart. But throughout, the focus is on Edward (a charismatic, indefatigable Butz), a small-town, Alabama boy with big dreams who embellishes his ordinary life with imagined adventures involving an amiable giant, dancing elephants, a frolicking mermaid and a certain big fish, whose appearance is long delayed.

Edward's tales amaze everyone except his skeptical, quietly resentful son Will, played as an adult by Bobby Steggert, a fine singer whose performance suggests a man unable to remove the chip from his shoulder. (Zachary Unger and Anthony Pierini alternate in the role of Young Will).

Upon learning that his father his ill, Will, who has long believed himself merely a footnote to Edward's anecdotes, returns home with his French wife (the underused Krystal Joy Brown) to uncover the truth of his father's life before time runs out. While their relationship dominates, it's not the only love story. The other, between a seemingly wayward husband and the wife -- who loves him not in spite of, but because of, his fancies -- is equally compelling, evidenced by the sweetly authentic duets (both sung and spoken) between Butz and Baldwin.

Also deserving mention is Ben Crawford, as Edward's lifelong rival; Ryan Andes as a giant too big for a small town; and Brad Oscar as a ringmaster with a secret.

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