Big Fish, Juno and the Paycock, Luce, The Landing and Becoming Dr. Ruth

Big Fish charms, Juno and the Paycock pales, Luce provokes, The Landing bores and Dr. Ruth delights!

Big Fish   (4 ½ stars)
Juno and the Paycock   (2 ½ stars)
Luce   (3 ½ stars)
The Landing   (1 ½ star)
Becoming Dr. Ruth   (3 stars)

Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 film adaptation, the new, musical incarnation of Big Fish is an utter delight from start to finish.  Now, did Big Fish cry out to be turned into a big, splashy, Broadway musical?  The only answer can be a resounding ‘no’.  But, to be sure, far stranger vehicles have been musicalized with phenomenal success.  (Sweeney Todd, anyone?)  And now that someone’s set it to music, specifically director and choreographer Susan Stroman, composer Andrew Lippa and book writer John August (who also wrote the screenplay for Burton’s film), audiences should be encouraged to evaluate its merits free of comparisons to its source material.  To that end, Big Fish is a sweet, charming, big-hearted tale of fathers and sons, filled with vibrant production numbers, gorgeous sets and costumes and a lush, melodic score that allows its talented cast to shine.  That cast, led by Bobby Steggert, Zachary Unger, Krystal Joy Brown and Kate Baldwin are all superb, but they’re all supporting players to the phenomenal star turn of Norbert Leo Butz in the central role of Edward Bloom.  Even more than his Tony-winning turns in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, Butz’s commanding presence in Big Fish is the heart and soul of the show.

It would be nice to report the Irish Rep’s revival of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is wonderful, but, alas, it’s merely serviceable.  Though competently acted by a cast led by J. Smith-Cameron and Ciaran O’Reilly as Juno and Jack Boyle, this production about a down-on-their-luck Irish family in 1922 Dublin never grabs your heart the way it should.  Smith-Cameron never feels entirely comfortable in this period drama and O’Reilly doesn’t own the stage the way he should.  Faring best is Mary Mallen as their daughter, while Ed Malone’s emotionally unleashed performance as their son feels overwrought.

Promising playwright JC Lee’s Luce turns the tables on a wealthy white couple with an adopted son from the Congo when, ten years later as 17-year old, high-school senior, they realize their son may not be the person they think he is.  Luce is being given a top-notch production with an excellent cast, but its ending falls flat when Lee fails to confront the issue at hand.  Sometimes, ambiguity is too ambiguous.

The Landing, a head-scratcher of a trio of one-act musicals that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, is a chore to sit through despite a talented cast that includes David Hyde Pierce, Julia Murney and Paul Anthony Stewart.  It’s not awful, but it’s not good either.  That’s doubly a shame since the music is by John Kander in his first outing with book and lyric writer Greg Pierce, who wrote the recent Slowgirl at LCT3 (and is David Hyde Pierce’s nephew).  Comprised of Andra, The Brick and The Landing, somebody at The Vineyard needs to do some serious soul-searching about why this triumvirate of banality was programmed in the first place.

The Barrington Stage Company’s production of Mark St. Germain’s Becoming Dr. Ruth has transferred to New York chiefly on the presence of the talented Debra Jo Rupp who’s both heartbreaking and hilarious in the title role.  Best known for her work in That 70’s Show, Rupp is a savvy actress who, though not nearly as short as the real Dr. Ruth Westheimer, totally inhabits the character with just the right amount of humor and zest for life.  Regaling us with Dr. Ruth’s fascinating and unbelievable life, Rupp is terrific.

Big Fish plays at the Neil Simon (250 W 52nd St, BigFishTheMusical.com).  Juno and the Paycock plays through December 8 at the Irish Rep (132 W 22nd St, IrishRep.org).  Luce plays through November 17 at LCT3’s Claire Tow (150 W 65th St, lct3.org).  The Landing plays through November 24 at The Vineyard (108 E 15th St, VineyardTheatre.org).  Becoming Dr. Ruth plays through January 12 at the Westside Theatre, Upstairs (407 W 43rd St, BecomingDoctorRuth.com).

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