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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Like a number of Ferber's always entertaining and socially relevant novels, Giant moved successfully from page to screen. The film's success assured by a starry cast that featured Rock Hudson as a Texas cattle rancher, Elizabeth Taylor as the Virginia bride he meets when buying a a horse from her wealthy dad, and James Dean as the poor, disgruntled mechanic who becomes an oil tycoon and harbors a long-lasting yen for his ex-boss's wife
But big sprawling historical novels are not easy to turn into musicals. Composer Jerome Kern and lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein III did it with Ferber's best seller Show Boat in 1927. An attempt to capitalize on that success which seeded several breakout hits ("Ole' Man River," "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man "). The musical version of Saratoga Trunk, flopped with an 80-performance run. This probably accounts for the fact that no one ever undertook the challenge of musicalizing Giant. That is, until Julie Gilbert, Ferber's great-niece and biographer, decided that it had the right stuff for a contemporary musical that depicted a historic chapter in American history through a powerful personal story.
It's easy to see why Gilbert approached Michael Jon LaChiusa to put Giant on the musical theater map. Since 1993, LaChiusa has again and again proved to be artistically adventurous with work that defies typecasting. His music tends towards the operatic (he has in fact written specifically for opera houses) and his songs don't tend to include sing-in-the-shower break-out numbers. Yet they're diverse and enjoyably melodic, never off-puttingly atonal. Besides original stories like First Lady Suite, which also premiered at the Public Theater, and last season's Queen of the Mist written for Mary Testa, he's courageously tackled all manner of literary sources many musical theater practiioners would consider too difficult, if not impossible. Clearly, if anyone could make the epic Giant sing and work as a forceful drama, it was LaChiusa. And so he has!
It's been a long process to wrestle the two generation spanning novel into a sprawling but not gargantuan musical — - from a 4-hour, 3-act version at the Signature Theater Center in DC to the more manageable 2-act, 3-hour version now at the Public Theater and co-sponsered by the Dallas Theater Center. The score is LaChiusa's most varied and accessible yet. But, important as the music is, the show's success as a compelling musical is the result of all its collaborators.
Sybille Pearson's book effectively accommodates the music and integrates the multiple themes into a compelling and relevant story. The plot still revolves around the love at first sight marriage between Jordan "Bick" Benedict and Leslie Lynnton, the down East bride he brings to his 12 and a half million acre cattle ranch. Unlike the film with its focus on the Bick-Leslie-Jett love triangle, Pearson sticks closer to the novel. Thus the ranch is the real troublemaker in this marriage which is as subject to change as the state that's "country" to Texans like Bick.
Though the love story, prejudice against Mexicans and the effect of the oil boom on the story's characters and their environment are the main thematic threads, Pearson also lets us see a larger picture. That picture shows the connection between the Texas story and the entire country's embrace of oil, conspicuous consumption and the influence of oil money lobbyists.
Brian D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin bring superb acting and vocal skills to the roles of Bick and and Leslie. D'Arcy James whose rich voice first thrilled audiences when he played the Stoker in the 1999 musical Titanic. is better than ever. Baldwin glows as the girl smitten with him and his "country" and evokes the toughness and stick-to-itiveness of a woman who realizes that she has bought into a less than perfect dream.
The entire 22-member cast, which includes well known names as well as newcomers, performs splendidly —, several ably doubling as the senior and junior versions of their characters. Standouts among Broadway veterans include John Dossett as Uncle "Bawley" Benedict, and Michelle Pawk as Luz, the older sister who raised Bick and wanted him to marry Vashi Hake (a less well known but terrific, big-voiced Katie Thompson).
PJ Griffith, who took over as St. Jimmy in American Idol has the looks, stage presence and vocal chops to make a powerfully vivid Jett (the James Dean character). If there's anything I would have changed in Pearson's story line, it would have been to keep Jett more actively in the picture throughout.
The always delightful Bobby Steggert is fine if under utilized as Jordy Benedict Jr who represents a new kind of Texan, who's more sensitive to their Mexican neighbors. Llike many other members of the cast whose characters figure importantly in the unfolding personal and history-related events, Steggert does get a character clarifying song, a duet with his Mexican wife Juana Guerra (Natalie Cortez).
This democratic apportioning of songs abets LaChiusa in adapting his distinctive musical voice to a variety of styles custom tailored to specific characters and situations that includes some blues, twangy country western, a little rock 'n' roll as well as Texas anthems though enjoyable as some of these individual parts are, they sometimes feel less than fully realized. (For example, Michael Cervantes as Angel Obregon Jr. lead the way in the snappy "Jump" number and then never reappears, except as a casualty of World War II).
As directed by Michael Greif, Giant is a stunningly beautiful, well paced show. Alan Moyer's turntable set lets the indoor and outdoor scenes flow smoothly into each other. There's no missing the transition from pristine wide open spaces to the intrusion of lifestyle changing oil rigs. Moyers' upstage area also includes a platform for the wonderfully string-rich 17-piece orchestra. Jeff Manshie's costumes abet the story's fast forwarding to another era. Kenneth Posner's lighting adds to the breathtaking beauty of some of the stage pictures and Bruche Coughlin and Larry Hochman's orchestrations make for a mellifluous sound.
Given its many assets and going back to my opening comment about Tony nominations if the show were playing in a Broadway house, Giant would seem to be a likely candidate for a Broadway transfer. But this is a big, expensive show and LaChiusa's music, no matter how lovely, easy on the ear and cleverly diverse, is not everyone's cup of musical theater. Without at least one tune to work as an instant hummer, a move to Broadway would be a high risk proposition. On the other hand, D'Arcy' James' last and very successful Broadway musical, Next to Normal also wasn't an old school song and dance show.
But don't wait for a maybe transfer. Just hurry up and get a ticket to see Giant as soon as possible. If it does move, you'll probably want to see it again and let some of those catchy tunes really stick to the ears.
Links to reviews of other LaChiusa shows reviewed at Curtainup:
First Lady Suite
The Highest Yellow
The Wild Party
See What I Wan to See
Queen of the Mist
Slings & Arrows- view 1st episode free
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show