1998 was a very lucky year for David Wallace. After writing five unpublished novels, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions was released into the world and instantly sold to Hollywood. The perfect director was then found for this fable-laden gem of a novel: Tim Burton. Wallace’s heartfelt vision of a magical dad and a Southern-gothic fairytale world was tailor-made for Burton. The director lent his usual phantasmagorical pizzazz, while Wallace provided the warmth.
Big Fish, the movie, scripted by John August, was a dreamy, inventive wonder.
Big Fish’s luck ran out in 2013, the year the film’s writer turned the story into a generic Broadway musical extravaganza. After its New York press opening, the musical ran for just 97 performances, losing millions. Now, it’s been refitted for small-theater companies, the lavish technical effects decreased, the cast shrunk from 26 to 12 and the orchestra reduced to a sextet. Yet this “intimate” version still has a sadly reductive book by John August and clichéd, insipid songs by Andrew Lippa. The songs have predigested uplifting lyrics like: “Be the hero of your own story and the world will be yours.”
Big Fish’s cornucopia of wonders has been downgraded to Broadway hokum. The book is just a batch of set-ups for the songs, and the songs don’t move the story along. So we’re left not with wonderment but contrived uplift and paint-by-numbers sentimentality.
Boston’s Speakeasy Stage Company isn’t to blame, except for the choice of vehicle. Under the direction of Paul Daigneault, the vocally talented cast performs with gusto, the scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord is effectively fairytale-like and Elisabeth Polito’s costumes add to the atmosphere—especially the darkly kaleidoscopic witches’ outfits. So, if you have no knowledge of the sublime source material and you’re a fan of the modern Broadway musical in its post-melodic era, you might catch this “Fish.” Judging by the applause, it has appeal. As Abe Lincoln once said: “People who like this sort of thing will find this is the sort of thing they like.”
But what a reduction from its profound, enchanting sources! Take the main character, Edward Bloom. In the novel, Edward is described as tall, gaunt, handsome, seductive: a man who can charm a vicious dog into docility, mollify a dangerous giant, win the hand of the most beautiful girl and save the lives of numerous men and women. His son may doubt the veracity of some of his dad’s tales, but he calls his pop “perhaps part god, the product of a mortal woman and some glorious entity, descended here to make the world the kind of place where more people laughed.”
Compare that with the play’s Edward. He’s an average middle-aged man who tells stories and jokes and can’t communicate his feelings: sort of like a sitcom dad from the 70s. He’s hardly a hero, more a Walter Mitty type. In translating the novel to screen, John August wrote a bigger part for the son character, with whom he claimed to identify. It was the dullest part of the movie. In his play, August makes the son even more important. And the son’s repetitive whining about a lack of emotional connection with his dad overrides the story and short-circuits the magic.
Three small parts deserve mention: The hilarious Lee David Skunes as Giant Karl, Daniel Scott Walton as the wily circus master and the charismatic Aubin Wise as the witch. She’s an actress who commands the stage even as a chorus-member.
Big Fish, a SpeakEasy production, runs through April 11 at Boston Center for the Arts.