First we had Tim Burton’s 2003 film of Daniel Wallace’s novel adapted by John August, which in turn led to a 2013 Broadway musical with a book by August based on the novel and his own screenplay, with a score by Andrew Lippa.
Now the show has its professional premiere in London in yet another incarnation, a pared-down version of the Broadway production.
Kelsey Grammer, making his UK stage debut, stars as Edward Bloom, a charismatic and avuncular former travelling salesman who over the years has regaled his son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) with tall stories and anecdotes that at their most fantastical have involved giants, witches and mermaids.
But with Will now an adult and about to become a father himself, and with Edward’s life possibly ebbing away, Will realises he doesn’t really know the man behind the stories and wants to separate fact from fiction and discover who the person he calls Dad really is.
It’s an emotional father and son story that at times leaves not dry eye in the house, and Grammer is a perfect fit for the larger than life Edward; quick of wit and possessing a singing voice as rich as molasses. Although despite the fact that his is the name above the title, there are long periods of the first act when he isn’t on stage, and the show suffers in his absence.
The problem comes mainly with the structure of the piece. By trying to blend into the relationship story reenactments of Edward’s stories it becomes a bit of a hotch potch — charming in parts but with neither August’s book or Nigel Harman’s direction really getting to grips with the shifts in tone.
There’s a nice turn by Jamie Muscato as the young Edward but he never really displays the charisma of Grammer and it’s hard to believe that one will grow into the other. Strong comedy support from Dean Nolan as the gentle giant Karl and Forbes Mason in a variety of roles including a circus ringmaster — a sequence during which he breaks the fourth wall and involves members of the audience. Funny, but another demonstration of the show not really knowing what it wants to be.
Andrew Lippa’s score has a few genuine high points especially Red White and True, an infectious Andrews Sisters homage, the beautiful ballad Time Stops and the first act closer Daffodils. But the real showstopper is the heart-wrenching I Don’t Need A Roof, exquisitely performed by Clare Burt as Edward’s wife Sandra.
Big Fish: the Musical is at The Other Palace until 31 December