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‘Big Fish’ catches wave of America’s ‘Greatest Generation’

Norbert Leo Butz turns tour de force as Edward Bloom world premiere stage musical 'Big Fish.'

Norbert Leo Butz turns in a tour de force as Edward Bloom in the world premiere of the stage musical "Big Fish."

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When: Through May 5

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $33-$100

Info: (800) 775-2000;

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: May 23, 2013 6:17AM

In its own eccentric, undogmatic way, “Big Fish” might just turn out to be the Broadway musical that best encapsulates what many describe as “The Greatest Generation” — that group of men who grew up during the Depression, headed off to war, came back home to start a family and devoted themselves to work. They were the guys who finally took joy in the fact that their kids were moving into the world in ways they themselves dreamed about but were never able to realize.

Of course Edward Bloom, the magnetic character at the center of the new musical that opened Friday at the Oriental Theatre in its pre-Broadway world premiere, is capable of dreaming more vividly than most.

Many opportunities might well have eluded this man who was born in a small, backwater Alabama town. But early on, Bloom (the phenomenal Norbert Leo Butz) seized his destiny by leaving home, working to win the heart of Sandra (Kate Baldwin), the girl of his dreams, and steering clear of a desk job by opting for a living as a traveling salesman. And if the ordinary did not live up to his greatest expectations he more than compensated for it by elaborately spinning the truth into oft-told tall tales — stories that, depending on your perspective, either sucked all the oxygen out of the room or injected life with a special radiance.

As it happens, Bloom’s wife adores and understands this quality in her husband. But for their son, Will — a literal-minded kid who probably never saw enough of his dad, and never felt he could get the straight truth even when he did — these stories kept the man at a distance. And when, as an adult (played by Bobby Steggert), he has become a successful globe-trotting journalist, that distance turns into estrangement until it is almost too late. This is, from start to finish, an intensely prickly father and son tale.

Based on the bestselling Daniel Wallace novel, this musical version of “Big Fish” — with a book by John August (who also wrote the screenplay for the popular 2003 film), a score by Andrew Lippa, direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, and much ingenious visual design — is wildly whimsical and full of Americana-style fairy tales in its first act. But it only really grabs your heart in the second act when, ironically, it becomes most real. Baldwin’s performance of Lippa’s glorious love song, “I Don’t Need a Roof,” sung to her dying husband, clinches the deal.

And as played by Butz, Bloom is truly a force to reckon with. “Big Fish” isn’t scheduled to swim onto Manhattan island until next fall, but in the interim the Tony Awards committee might well consider coming up with a special category for “actor in a marathon role who carries a long first act almost entirely on his own back as he sings, dances, breathes meaning into the mundane and literally jumps through hoops during a stint in the circus.” A compact man with enormous yet seemingly easeful energy, Butz makes Bloom deeply likeable rather than obnoxious. You root for him all the way. Baldwin brings her statuesque, Breck Shampoo Girl beauty, as well as her richly honeyed voice to the role of Sandra. And to his credit, Steggert doesn’t soften the edges of Will (expertly played as a child by Zachary Unger, who is rotating in the role with Anthony Pierini).

Stroman’s direction captures the story’s heart and humor, but it is her choreography — not just the wit and invention she brings to the superbly danced big numbers, which feature everything from batlike witches, giants and mermaids to cheerleaders, U.S.O. girls and sexy Wild West good time girls, but the sheer flow of storytelling — that is her winning ticket. The orchestra (seated on three levels overlooking the stage, though only rarely seen) gives the show a lustrous sound. And the melding of Julian Crouch’s “story-framing” sets, animated by grandly poetic projections of Benjamin Pearcy and by William Ivey Long’s wonderfully textured costumes, could not be more ideal.

You can easily point to all the precursors of “Big Fish,” from “Forrest Gump,” to Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” to a hint of “The Wizard of Oz.” But the musical catches its own special wave, too.

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