It’s taken seven years to bring John LaChiusa and Sibylle Pearson’s musical, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, to fruition. The Dallas Theatre Center has presented it, so has the Signature Theatre in D.C. Each outing has been helpful, and the authors have landed in New York at the Public Theatre in a brave and bold production with a large cast of gifted artists who have delighted us many times in other shows. To get them all together in one piece is startling, and effective.
The source material is long and intricate. The film that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean only dealt with its beginning, the triangular tale of the Benedicts and Jet Rink. The love of the land was in it, and the importance of oil underneath that land, but the movie focused on the threat that Jet brought to the long term marriage plans of Jordan Benedict and his lovely wife Leslie.
The musical sticks more closely to the novel, and covers far more territory. It deals with the Benedict’s two children, Jordan’s uncle Bawley, his sister Luz, his boyhood sweetheart Vashti, with several of the Mexican workers who tend the Benedict ranch, which is vast. The story has the sweep of Ms. Ferber’s Show Boat, and it covers twenty seven years of life in southwest Texas.
Brian D’Arcy-James plays Bick, the head of the family, the ruler of the ranch. This most valuable player has been delighting us for years, ranging from the wild Irish of Brendan in The Lieutenant of Inishmore to the brassy charm of Sidney in Sweet Smell of Success to the riotously funny Freddy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in which he had the unenviable task of replacing the brilliant Norbert Leo Butz, and he hit a home run.
He continues to grow as a performer, and has begun to branch out into television and film. His stint on the series Smash last year (as Debrah Messing’s abused husband) was impressive, and though no one had a clue he was under all that makeup in Shrek, the Musical on Broadway, he most certainly was — as in the title role!.
This is a very useful actor to have around, and in Giant he brings vivid colors to the man who grows to accept the many vicissitudes of a long life well lived. It’s all there in his performance – his great love for Leslie, for Luz, for the children who grew to have identities of their own, for his uncle from whom he learns much of what growing up really means.
But Giant is loaded with rich and diverse characters, nicely adapted by Ms. Pearson, and beautifully played by what is a hand picked cast. Kate Baldwin is a lovely Leslie, a graceful beauty with a strong sense of self worth, not always easy to express in the man’s ranching world in which her marriage has placed her. John Dossett, another fine actor who is at home in a musical as he is in a play, brings great strength and tenderness to Uncle Bawley, and Michele Pawk (who is Mr. Dossett’s offstage wife) as Luz is full of conviction as well as tenderness, a sometimes adversary to her beloved brother Jordan.
Katie Thompson’s unrequited love for Jordan is clearly conveyed as we watch her live with his rejection of her romantically, but she is so appealing we are delighted to find her learning to love a cow hand who adores her. The young Benedicts, played beautifully by Bobby Steggart and Mackenzie Mauzy have their moments too, as they mature into young adults. Steggart, who has been making his mark season by season with excellent work is like so many these days — equally at home in musicals and plays, and it’s great fun to see him climbing in prominence as he navigates the choppy waters of a long and important career. I apologize to those I haven’t mentioned, for there isn’t a bad apple in this barrel, and much of the fun comes from watching good actors play interesting characters in a good story.
John LaChiusa’s contribution as composer and lyricist is an impressive step forward for him. His lyrics are intelligent and clever, but he has chosen to use them to tell the story in the same manner as Ms. Pearson’s book. The great majority of the musical numbers are actually monologues set to music. The lyrics are worth listening to, and they further help develop the characters. They do it though at the expense of the music, which tends to sound like one long recitative. Occasionally, he allows a tune not to wander to accommodate its lyrics. In “Jump” for instance, we are for once allowed to enjoy a good tune.
Frank Loesser managed to do it several times in his The Most Happy Fella in which songs like “Big D” and “Standing on the Corner” were allowed to show us the difference between good musical theatre and grand opera. That show comes to mind because it too is an outdoor musical in a rural setting with a large cast of characters. Jerome Kern accomplished it in Show Boat. “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” and “Only Make Believe” lighten the load and make the more demanding arias even more powerful by contrast. I’m still waiting for a LaChiusa score that pays as much attention to the music as to the words.
Ms. Pearson’s book is fine; I think some of the peripheral material could be trimmed because there were several endings possible for this piece, and three hours is just a tad long to hold interest.
But this is a major work, and it is rich and inventive and beautifully cast and staged. It deals with many issues – race, ambition, control, the price to be paid for a rich, balanced life. Texas is a vast and unique state; it’s also a state of mind, and this musical makes its case very well indeed. Its people have a very different life style than I, but it’s to this company and its writers’ credit that I understood them, was engaged by them, felt empathy for them, and was glad to make their acquaintance.
Giant runs thru December 16, 2012 at the Public Theater, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC.
Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, who, in his more than 60 year career on Broadway as a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has recently written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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