a theatre, film & pop culture review
Giant is first and foremost an epic sprawl of a 1952 novel by Edna Ferber, but I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say more people are familiar with George Stevens’s Oscar-winning 1956 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and, in his last, wildly over-the-top screen appearance, James Dean. This is a story of breadth, encompassing themes as vast as the great state itself: tradition versus progress, racism, immigration, oil drilling, a woman’s place — and the list goes on. And so does the runtime, which exceeds 3 hours, and yet still isn’t enough to justly fill out a cast of twenty-plus characters.
Ferber, who penned that other great American tome adapted for the musical stage, Show Boat, offers in Giant a story just as big, but with the centering relationship of Jordan “Bick” Benedict, a poetry-recitin’ rancher, and his young wife, a refined Virginian named Leslie Lynnton. As Leslie, stumbling all the while, attempts to acclimate to a new life of rough hands and dry heat, she also faces the open hostility of Bick’s land-lovin’ sister Luz (an appropriately brusque Michelle Pawk), the advances of bad boy oil entrepreneur Jett Rink (an underutilized PJ Griffith), and the shock of injustice towards native Mexicans. This is Gone with the Wind meets West Side Story, where the green, luscious Tara is replaced with the endless dessert dust of Reatta, and the one-dimensional Puerto Ricans are now one-dimensional Mexicans.
Texas is a big state with big personalities, yet the folks we encounter in Sybille Pearson’s overcrowded, unfocused adaptation of Ferber’s novel are flat and rather subdued. As Bick, the finely cast and, as-ever, gloriously voiced Brian D’Arcy James strikes an earthy balance between strapping, stern cattle king and Harvard graduate with a soft-spot for genteel women. As Leslie, Kate Baldwin has the unenviable task of stretching her character beyond the cliché of the city sophisticate — she doesn’t get very far.
In a cast of millions (or so it feels), two side characters are able to pull themselves out of the dense labyrinth of subplots to infuse the overflowing musical with energy and specificity. As Bick’s robust and warm-hearted neighbor Vashti, Katie Thompson beautifully reveals the lingering ache of a childhood crush gone unrequited in the heartrending “He Wanted a Girl,” and a charismatic Miguel Cervantes, in the musical’s sole uptempo number (and the only sequence incorporating any kind choreography) brings much-needed humor and spark to the second act as Angel, the joyfully idealistic young Mexican. Unfortunately, within minutes of endearing himself to us, Angel simultaneously enlists, and dies, as a soldier. Like the other dozens of characters, some of whom hardly receive the courtesy of an introduction, Angel — and the exuberant Cervantes — disappear, barely registering as a speck of dirt on the vast expanse of Giant‘s terrain.
But that terrain seems cramped inside the proscenium space of the Public’s Newman Theater. Scenic Designer Allan Moyer not only had to contend with challenge of creating a wide, open space, but he had to do so with 23 actors and 17 musicians in mind (the gorgeously full orchestra is perched above the stage in full view). The result is more claustrophobic than invigoratingly free, though Kenneth Posner floods the stage with warm sidelights and sunsets in an attempt to broaden the horizon. And nothing is aided by Michael Greif’s typically static direction consisting of presentational singing and very little movement (what exactly did choreographer Alex Sanchez, well, choreograph?).
If this all seems an unkind assessment of the most ambitious musical we’ve seen in a long time, it’s not meant to be. Michael John LaChiusa’s score sparkles with lovely anthems, soaring and swelling prettily. But this is not the MJL we’ve come to know and expect. For the cerebral composer’s typical style, look no further than last season’s quirky, albeit flawed Queen of the Mist, about a woman who hopped in a barrel and plunged over Niagra Falls, or the brazen Hello, Again, with its carnal couplings and puckish word play. LaChiusa’s musical palette is complex, and his chords are oftentimes as abstruse as his subject matters — when one thinks of widely accessible musical theatre composers, MJL doesn’t exactly spring to mind.
[In Giant, there is one musical sequence that startles in its divergence from the generally pleasing compositions. A character — it’s not important which — dies, and, starkly lit, kneeling on the upper level of the stage before the orchestra, the Mexican women who work Reatta bow their heads and sing a dirge, “Ruega Por Nosotros.” Translated into sustained wails and discordant eruptions, the depths and despair of their mourning is striking in its singularity of disquietude. Those few moments of choral grief (reminiscent of the composer’s harshly syncopated Bernarda Alba) remain long after Bick and Leslie’s saccharine second-act closing duet.]
None of this will, or necessarily should, stop Giant from reaching as high and as far as Broadway (the rumor mill is currently running overtime). In our over-saturated culture of movie-to-musical fare consisting of high-flying cheer stunts and grown men donning pointy green shoes and elfin hats while belting generic, forgettable pop songs, Giant‘s full, classical-sounding score; fine, established cast; and sheer, blinding ambition are a great big breath of fresh air. Giant‘s got artistic potential to spare — and its messy imperfection is far more interesting and than any glossy mediocrity currently taking up real estate on 42nd Street.