“We both may be susceptible to full moons,” a sophisticated Virginia ingénue, Leslie (Betsy Morgan), tells a Texas rancher, Bick (Lewis Cleale), when he visits her home to buy a horse. Indeed they are, and quickly fall for each other. “It’s called falling in love, not walking in love,” Bick explains about their whirlwind courtship.
The musical version of Giant, with a book by Sybille Pearson and music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, based on the 1952 novel by Edna Ferber, is itself susceptible to full moons – unabashedly romantic, hugely ambitious, and daringly passionate and sometimes strange. Under the leadership of Eric Schaeffer, Signature Theatre, which commissioned and is premiering the four-hour production, is surely susceptible too.
Deep recession? Attention-challenged audiences? A combined cast, orchestra, and crew a substantial fraction of the theater’s audience capacity? An epic tale with a somewhat kitschy yet iconic blockbuster film at least semi-ingrained in viewers’ minds? No worries!
Hardly immune to lunar impulsiveness myself, I’m so glad that everyone involved with this venture is just a little insane, because I love this show, with all its bravado and bad timing, and wish it a long life as the classic in the making that it deserves to be.
Don’t get me wrong. There are problems with this production, which, for all its imaginative vastness, seems like not yet a fully finished canvas. Signature has done, I think, everything it can with it. Under the direction of Jonathan Butterell, scenic designer Dane Laffrey has taken a fairly minimalist approach to setting, letting musical mood, lighting designer Japhy Weideman’s evocative hues, and the audience’s imaginations imply the vast physical and psychic terrain of a two and a half million acre southwest Texas ranch. All well and good.
But at Leslie’s urging late in the story, she and Bick allow themselves to daydream about the future, so I’ll do so too, imagining Giant in a larger, more commercial and conventional theater in New York, with a big, if not huge, budget for more elaborate sets, animated lighting projections (some newsreel footage or headlines, for instance), and lots of other advantages and gizmos.
Less is often more. But hey, this is a sweeping multigenerational epic about a bigger-than-life family from the 1920s to the 1950s in a bigger-than-life state – so much bigger than life that it thinks it is its own country. The script involves intense struggles of the marital, filial, racial, and political kinds. If there were ever an occasion for more is more, this would be it, no? That’s simply not possible here, and Signature has birthed a beauty on the best terms it could. But like the Lone Star pioneers, the Signature folks have left lots of room for this baby to grow. I hope some visionary producers will take a cue from Bick and his ilk, and make some bold investments and decisions that will allow that to happen.
A couple other critics have suggested that the material be pared down and that the first of three acts falls a little flat. I respectfully disagree. A reprise here and there – sure, snip away. But this is a big story and needs breathing room, and I think the first act sets the stage beautifully, from the opener Spanish “Aurelia Dolores” and into Bick and Leslie’s courtship (“I’m lost in her woods,” sings Bick in a lyric wonderfully who-the-hell-cares-about-Freud in its vibrant, primal innocence). We meet Bick’s older sister, Luz (Judy Blazer in a finely dark, sexually ambiguous, and multi-layered performance), the young, feral ranch hand Jett (Ashley Robinson, as languid and coiled and scary as the rattlesnakes he imitates), and the rest of the Benedicts and associates on the Reata Ranch in 1925.
Act 2 brings us into the 40s, with oil changing the land and its inhabitants, racial tensions stirring, and a new generation of Benedicts — Jordy Jr. (an earnest, bookish Jordan Nichols) and Lil’ Luz (the sassy and tempestuous Jessica Grové). Act 3 takes us into the political and nouveau-riche brashness of the 50s, in some ways demented — Jett has become a rich McCarthyite red baiter — and in some ways inspired — Jordy Jr. has disregarded the taboos and wed his soul mate, Juana (a lovely Marisa Echeverría), quitting the ranch to become a doctor in the town’s clinic for Mexican-Americans.
LaChiusa’s score is a feast of lyrical ballads, and punchy countryish and dance tunes, underlain by a generally Copeland-idiomed modernistic Americana, well orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman, and rendered with gusto and refinement by a 14-player orchestra under the lively direction of Chris Fenwick. (They play from an upper level, appropriately horizonlike, above and beyond the action.) The balance was sometimes a little off, the instruments overwhelming some of the vocals, particularly Blazer’s and those of the hermit uncle Bawley (John Dossett). I’d urge a little more mic volume, not a little less orchestra. And despite that, Blazer was fiery, and Bawley, in addition to being just a fun and inspired character, was given real, eccentric vitality by Dossett.
Bawley’s key numbers, one a coyote parable about letting go of death and the past, the other a strange, fun recounting of his youth as a concert piano student on a stint in Europe, is typical of the admirable oddness and audacity of LaChiusa’s approach. In 2005, LaChiusa wrote a somewhat notorious article for Opera News accusing slender upbeat fare like The Producers and Hairspray of being “faux-musicals.” “Instead of choreography, there is dancing,” he wrote. “Instead of crafted songwriting, there is tune-positioning. Faux-musicals are mechanical; they have to be. For expectations to be met, there can be no room for risk, derring-do or innovation.” Whatever LaChiusa is accused of with regard to Giant (and I suspect he’ll be accused, unjustly, of a lot of things, self-indulgence and grandiosity among them), I don’t think even his harshest critics would deny his risk, derring-do, or innovation. He’s most often cast as among the progeny of Sondheim, but in this case, LaChiusa undoubtedly has Show Boat and Oklahoma looming just as large in his rearview mirror.
What struck me most about the score, aside from its overall confidence and variety, was the delicious way it pulled tender threads from nowhere and spun them into lasting musical and emotional moments. “Juana’s Prayer” for her expected baby girl, for instance, or Bick’s plaintive yet reluctant “I Need You” to Leslie on their elucidating camping trip to the desert late in their marriage. I’m a certified sucker for ballads, but see if you, too, aren’t quite devastated by Vashti’s (Katie Thompson’s) twangy, trenchant love lament in “He Wanted a Girl” or her portion, particularly, of “Midnight Blues,” about yearning for more than the dry, stifled contact of a marriage grown distant. Or Juana’s gorgeous “There Is a Child” about affirming one’s optimism in the face of prejudice and continuously crushed expectations. (You may someday hear a more polished, bigger voice than Echeverría’s on that number, but I doubt you’ll hear a more emotionally sweet and heartbreaking rendition overall. She just has a presence that slayed me.)
Betsy Morgan is a bewitching Leslie, equally convincing in her younger, impetuous “Your Texas” and in the more mature, disillusioned, longing of “A Stranger.” Cleale’s Bick is also outstanding. He leaps over the potential corniness of the character with straightforward glee in his animalistic instant infatuation with Leslie (“It feels so good to lose my way,” he sings), and with a boisterous determination in “Heartbreak Country.” His second-act duet with Luz, “Our Mornings/That Thing” was a particularly affecting reflection of wistful nostalgia as well as bewilderment at the vicissitudes of parenthood.
I think that in future incarnations, more upbeat tunes like “Jump” might need even more crackling orchestrations and definitely some livelier choreography and scenic context. But Robinson, though sometimes just this side of overdoing his James Dean meets Anthony Perkins version of Jett, brought fabulous flair to his roiling “Private Property,” his seductive “Elsie Mae,” and his ranting “The Dog Is Gonna Bark” (kudos to Weideman for the intense reds matching the Bolshie reds of Jett’s paranoia and rage in the last of those). And I admire the way Pearson and LaChiusa spin out Jett’s elaborate car, property, and poker metaphors for love, lust, and acquisition. How very Texan.
“Do something a little crazy now and then just to know you’re alive,” Bawley advises the young married couple Bick and Leslie when trying to spur them on in the wake of tragedy. Giant is more than a little crazy, but man, never mind the running time (come on, admit it, you’ve spent that long on Facebook or playing Wii without even thinking about it), it’ll make you feel very much alive. And to riff on Bick and Leslie’s daydreams once more, when I’m 70, I hope I’ll be seeing a revival of it on Broadway or at the Kennedy Center, or at Signature, of course, and reading in American Theatre magazine about its improbable and long-lasting success.
book by Sybille Pearson
music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
based on the novel by Edna Ferber
produced by Signature Theatre
reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.