Sometimes a musical gets you with the first kiss or a nifty bit of dance. "Big Fish" might be the first to do it with elephant butts.
The sight of three swaying caps a tumultuous first act that throws everything at you — acrobats, a montage, smoke, leaping fish, mermaids, werewolves and a ruthless cheerfulness — so by the time the simple view of puppet pachyderm rear ends appear, cheers come naturally from the audience.
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, "Big Fish" is a hyperkinetic, messy spectacle that really only finds its footing in a cleaner second act, finally emerging with real heart and style.
The musical that opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre is adapted from the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel and the 2003 Tim Burton movie. The book is by John August, who also penned the movie's screenplay.
Norbert Leo Butz is perfectly cast as a manic father fond of tall tales about witches and giants, but who harbors a secret. Bobby Steggert is great as his exasperated son, tired of all the silliness. And Kate Baldwin is lovely as the woman trying to reconcile these two men before it's too late.
While acknowledging that the show is about a self-consciously rambling and absurdist hero, the bloated 90-minute Act 1 threatens to derail as visual gags, projections and busy scenes — plus a book that uneasily mixes whimsy and cancer — bombard the senses.
"People want to see things beyond their imagination! Bigger than life!" says a circus ringmaster. It's advice that Stroman clearly has embraced, for better or worse. The ante keeps getting upped with each scene and it gets exhausting.
Some jaw-dropping stuff is indeed on show: There's a stunning dance scene in which Benjamin Pearcy's projections are broadcast on William Ivey Long's sumptuous cloaks. There's a fun moment between Butz and a giant — an excellent Ryan Andes, channeling Monty Python — who have a good song called "Out There on the Road."
And the act ends with daffodils sprouting from every corner of the stage, a beautiful tour de force from set designer Julian Crouch that would be enough to end most musicals on a high.
After intermission, a big, bombastic song — "Red, White and True," complete with nine dancing USO girls whose bodies spell out "U S A" — proves no one wants to take their foot off the gas. It could easily be the 11 o'clock number in any other musical.
Then, finally, many of the toys are put away — wisely. "Fight the Dragon" is beautifully sung in a simple bedroom set, and Baldwin's torch song "I Don't Need a Roof" is a shimmering gorgeous thing, with her just cradling her ill husband, teary proof of her acting and singing chops. Both songs bring the show back to gravity in an emotional, beautiful way.
Even so, there are still unnecessary flourishes. One Act 2 song, "Showdown," a TV cowboy-infused battle between father and son is simply unneeded, especially since there's no call for a "hanging tonight" on top of fatal cancer.
Lippa, who also wrote the songs for "The Addams Family," has a knack for a classic, catchy Broadway sound, though many tunes come off as attempts for a hit-for-the-stands homer.
Stroman keeps the action flowing flawlessly — and her actors moving through an impossibly complicated world — and clearly knows when to let the beauty of the moment simply shine. She captures the magic of the original story and has created some undeniable magic of her own.
Butz proves he's simply in a league of his own, able to switch from middle-aged to teenager in a snap, offering a complex portrait of a Southern man while avoiding good 'ol boy cliches, and he even spends some of the night lying in a hospital bed, not the most expected way to lead a musical. But then there are lots of other fun surprises at "Big Fish," including elephant fannies.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits