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Catching Big Fish and Jazz After Midnight

by John Platt
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It so happens that I’ve seen three of my favorite Broadway actors recently – Michael Cerveris in Fun Home, Danny Burstein in The Snow Goose, and now Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish at the Neil Simon Theatre. Butz has made a specialty of playing con men in shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, so he’s perfect for the role of the irrepressible father who tells tale tales in Big Fish. The musical is based on the book by David Wallace, which was made into a marvelous movie directed by Tim Burton and starring Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, about a son’s frustration with his father’s unlikely stories.

Susan Stroman, who won a slew of Tonys for The Producers and other shows, is the director and choreographer here. Working with imaginative projections, sets, and costumes, she creates a lively production with a fine cast, complete with a witch, a giant, and a mermaid.  But what does it want to be: The Wizard of Oz? It doesn’t quite have the magic. Into the Woods? With serviceable music, but pretty banal lyrics, it doesn’t have the sophistication of Sondheim. It goes to show how hard it is to get everything right.  Overall, I’d say it was better than I expected, but not as good as it might have been.

Great songs are no problem in After Midnight, which just opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It’s more of a revue than a musical, with Dule Hill, of “West Wing” fame, as your host, reciting some Langston Hughes poetry about Harlem in between numbers that might have been heard at the Cotton Club in the ‘30s. 

The Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars masterfully capture the sound of Duke Ellington’s silky woodwinds and growling trumpets, and a brilliant cast proves it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing in a non-stop succession of song and dance numbers. None of them are household names, though American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino and Tony winner Adriane Lenox both really grab the spotlight. It’s just an ecstatic production that’s guaranteed to please.

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