Sunday, May 5, 2013

Nerdery of A Different Order: Musicals!

Sometimes, I'm a theater geek. More specifically, I'm a musical theater geek. But it comes and goes, I'm not a diehard obsessive (usually). After the overload that was C2E2 and the roommate and I joking about how I'd only go in costume if I was completely unrecognizable, then somehow reaching a point where I said I'd paint myself green and do a twist on the Wicked Witch of the West (mostly as a version of Elphaba from Wicked), I was feeling the urge to bite the bullet and get a damn ticket to Big Fish (the musical) before it left Chicago. I had been wanting to see it, but unable to find someone to go with me- even with discounts.

So, after a doctor's appointment on Thursday, I was aleady in the nieghborhood and managed to get a last minute discounted ticket to Big Fish for that night. Even though it meant that I had to bring a massive haul of nutritional supplements from the doctor with me to the show. Thank goodness I thought to bring the huge purse I borrowed from a friend a while back that could hold it all (for the most part). It was a little awkward to have the giant bag between my legs for the show, but thankfully only one person tried to walk past me down my row after I sat down.

I wanted to see it so much, though. It wasn't because I loved the movie (in fact, I found the movie to be kind of disappointing and lopsided- something that happens a lot with Tim Burton) but because Norbert Leo Butz was starring in it. I knew I'd be kicking myself if I didn't take this chance to see him live for once in my life.

A few years ago, I got mildly obsessed with Mr. Butz. I'm going to mostly blame seeing Wicked for that. He wasn't in the production that I saw, but he is, of course, on the soundtrack. And I was pretty ill when I saw Wicked, which gave me time to obsess about the show a little bit. Because it wasn't perfect or great... but there was something about the show that I just couldn't let go of. Then I started finding bootleg footage (this was right before YouTube took off, and before Google bought YouTube and Google Video was the best source for the videos at the time) of the original cast.  And then ended up seeing footage of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And then bought that soundtrack. And then discovered The Last 5 Years and bought THAT soundtrack as well. Which is... seriously impressive. His voice is great- but his physicality when he embraces a role is the really impressive part. He does these roles that he both disappears into but also is able to do incredibly physical choreography as that character in a way that few people seem to be able to do- or have the energy to do. Like, look at his Tony performances (for the two roles he received Tonys for, naturally):

This is him in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where he moves around the stage and literally dances circles around everyone:

And then in Catch Me If You Can, where he's basically embodying a middle-aged G-man with back and prostate problems while dancing. I love how his arms seem to mostly move below the elbow and his legs mostly move below the knees:

In the end, I got the ticket because I was worried that if I missed this chance, he'd be slowing down or giving up doing big physical roles by the next time I might get a chance to see him. Also, as the above clips show, he already has been getting casted for roles that don't show off his vocals abilities as well as his acting abilities, and I was hopeful that maybe Big Fish would finally do both.

As for Big Fish, it was so worth seeing. It's not a life-changing musical, but it is a good musical. The songs are really sweet (but not overly memorable- two of them can be heard here, but those are not the best songs in the show, if you ask me), the message is so much more focused and impactful than the movie, and the technical aspects with all the projection work and things that skewed the average musical set up were amazing. I really recommend seeing it, if you get a chance.

From the moment it starts, first revealing that there is now an everflowing river where the orchestra pit should be and that the orchestra is now behind the cyclorama- you're gently lulled into the world of Edward Bloom, where everything is just a little bit different but there's always that river to be there and let you know that you haven't wandered too far.

Everything has been crafted just slightly better and sturdier than in the film. The main characters are more rounded (especially Will and Josephine) and the focus of the story has been put back on Will and Edward as a father and son that have trouble understanding each other but know they're running out of time. More purpose has been put in Edward's stories when they come in, and he comes across as a much better- but still flawed- person than in the film version.

Also, just having the same actor always playing Edward really pulls everything together. I don't think it would've worked nearly as well if there was one actor playing the older Edward and one actor (or two, if you do a child actor as well) playing the younger version. I love both Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor, but this Edward Bloom is so much more of a whole person. He's not Ewan McGregor's constantly smiling "I know I'm no going to die, so what do I care?" naive Edward. This is a more focused version- used more as being a father acting out his past to his son- even when he's confined to a bed. And is definitely helped by Butz's ability to really embody the character from a kid wandering through the forest with his friends to being an old man struggling to hang on to his life just a little bit longer.

In addition to that, the character of Jenny is clarified a bit more. She's still tragic and sad,  but it's not nearly as frustrating as her side of the story was in the film (also, far less distracting now that she's not being played by a heavily pregnant Helena Bonham Carter when the character was very not pregnant). The town of Specter is completely removed from the musical, however, to keep it from getting too complicated. John August (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie) seems to have really taken notes on how to improve from the last version of the story and realized that The Story should be the first focus and the stories Edward tells should come second and only to move The Story forward.

Also, it just flows so well as a musical. I'm the type of person that looks for the seams when it comes to  stage productions- trying to see where the trap doors are, where there looks to be a piece of scenery that's going to be used for something else in an upcoming moment, and so on. But everything was so fluidly changed and evolving that there were a few set changes that really seemed to have happened in the blink of an eye. Not to mention how at least once, there was a moment where there are actors on stage but you don't realize that they're not just props until suddenly they reveal themselves halfway into the scene. At one point, even flowers start to bloom from the boards of the stage as if from no where.

The one thing is that it really is a smaller show. The cast looked to have under 30 people in it and while they're all amazing, it does feel very scaled down from the giant casts of mega-musicals like Les Mis and The Lion King. But those people are all used incredibly well and what the show lacks in actual people on the stage, it makes up in amazing set pieces and visuals- to the point of there being dancing elephants in the background of one of the scenes at the circus.

As I said, I really recommend it.

Although, I'm a little amused by the little coupon items handed out at the end of the show I went to:

How nice of BroadwayInChicago to give us $20 off coupon codes... that expired hours beforehand that same night. A little lame, my friends.

As I went to the show alone after an appointment and I still had to work the next day, after I left the Oriental, I just started walking back to my L stop. For a moment, I thought about trying to find the stage door, but I just always found that to be a weird thing to do. I'm not really an autograph person. I have a few things that I really love that are autographed (Bruce Campbell's If Chins Could Kill and Stephen Fry's Steven Fry's America) but I treasure those more, actually, due to the fact that I wasn't the one that went to the signings- they were gifts from dear friends of mine that knew that I adored those people.

So, I just kept walking to the L, sticking close to a group that also left the theater just to be safe about not looking like I was alone and wandering the streets late at night. But then the group turned down a street in the opposite direction as the L... which I then realized was actually an alley, not a street. And there was the little glowing sign saying "Stage Door".

And I actually gathered my courage to head over to the crowd at the door, figuring that I'd stand there fore a bit and probably not have anyone come out that way- as that is how my luck works most of the time.

But that wasn't the case. In fact, the only person working through the crowd signing things was Norbert Leo Butz himself. And he knew what he was doing. There was a cluster of women that were talking to him as he signed things and I was so far back and didn't want to push- as I said, autographs aren't a big thing for me. I was just so happy to have seen him in action for real during the show still.

But, as I said, he's as good as a two-time Tony winner should be- he saw me and signed my Playbill.
 We have a win!

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