May 27, 2009

"Giant" Is Grand But It’s Also a Little Too Big

You might think there would be enough theater in New York to keep me occupied. But last weekend, I took the Metroliner down to Washington to see Giant, the new musical by Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson that is being given a world premiere at Signature Theatre in nearby Arlington, Virginia.

Given the state of the current economy—the world’s and mine—I didn’t make the decision to go down there lightly. And the mixed reviews didn’t help. But on the weekly BroadwayRadio podcast, Talkin’ Broadway critic Matthew Murray encouraged “anyone who has any interest in it whatsoever to go down there and support it even if it ends up coming to New York. I promise you, you’ll be glad you did.” I had more than a passing interest in the show. So I went. And I am indeed glad I did.

My fascination with Giant dates back to the days when my young niece Jennifer, now 29, used to visit me on weekends. She was obsessed with the 1956 movie version of “Giant” that starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and, in his final screen appearance, James Dean. The local video shop (remember those?) was always the first stop of our weekend and then she would play the movie non-stop for the next two days. I would go to sleep with “Giant” playing and wake up with “Giant” playing. There are very few movies I know as well. Or like as much.

I also know LaChiusa a little and like him quite a bit. My husband K, a pit musician, has played in several of his shows and Michael John has always been very nice to me, including when we ran into one another outside the Signature Theatre before last Saturday’s matinee. His shows don’t always work bu
t much of the music is gorgeous and I greatly admire his determination to take on serious subjects, like race and class.

Edna Ferber who wrote the novel “Giant” was fascinated by those topics too. You don’t hear much about her nowadays but Ferber’s big sprawling books were regulars on the bestsellers lists during the first half of the 20th century and they provided the inspiration for some classic Broadway shows, including Show Boat, considered to be the first modern book musical and certainly the first to deal head-on with the issues of class and race.

It was Ferber’s niece, a fan of LaChiusa’s music, who came up with the idea of turning her aunt’s 1952 novel about three generations of Texans—both Anglos and Mexicans—into a musical and approached him about doing it. W
hen Signature used part of a gift from the Shen Family Foundation to commission LaChiusa to do a new work, he recruited Pearson and they set about adapting “Giant” for the stage. (Click here to read a Washington Post story about the making of the musical.)

Giant centers around a Harvard-educated Texan who marries a Virginia deb and brings her home to his two million-acre ranch but its story encompasses the interconnected lives of the many people who live and work nearby. It looks at how they deal with the change from a land and cattle-based economy to one fueled by oil, the evolving relations between Mexicans and Anglos, and the familial tensions between husbands and wives, fathers and sons.

LaChiusa and Pearson try to tell all of it—and that’s the biggest problem with this Giant. The musical runs 3 hours and 55 minutes, with two intermissions, and it still leaves stuff out. And if you didn't have a Jennifer in your life to make sure that you were steeped in the particulars of the saga, there are moments when you might wonder what the hell was going on. I’m hoping the creative team uses the time between now and any future New York production to focus on just one or two storylines and to prune appropriately.

Some of the 29 songs will probably have to go and I’ll be sorry to lose them. LaChiusa is known for difficult scores that challenge audiences but this one is totally accessible, mixing melodies that evoke the wide open spaces of the prairie with rhythms from south of the border, symphonic harmonies with jazz syncopation. A few of the songs try a little too hard to please but in general it’s a magnificent score. The woman sitting next to me, kept swooning with pleasure.

And, for the most part, they’ve found terrific actors who can both sing and act the roles. The leads—Lewis Cleale as the proud rancher Jordan Benedict and Betsy Morgan as his socially-progressive wife Leslie—are superb. Neither is a “big name” and so I tried to imagine which Broadway stars might be brought in to take over the roles but I can’t imagine anyone being better.

The critics who saw the show also loved Ashley Robinson, who plays Dean’s role of the ranch-hand-turned-oil-mogul Jett Rink. Robinson is a charismatic guy with an “American Idol”-style belt but he seemed to me too conscious of living up to the Dean legacy. Similarly, Judy Blazer drew raves for her portrayal of Benedict’s no-nonsense sister Luz but she was too one-note for me and failed to convey the protective love Luz feels for her baby brother.

The production, which cost about $1.1 million, is elegant. It’s performed on a largely bare stage against an artfully lit backdrop, set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designer Japhy Weideman's poetic interpretation of the vast expanse of the Texas landscape. It contrasts nicely with Susan Hilferty’s richly-detailed period costumes. Chris Fenwick’s direction may be a little too stately but there’s time to fix that too before the show comes to New York.

Although I have no idea whether it ever will come. To my great chagrin, I forgot to ask Michael John when I saw him. But I hope it does. Or that it’s done somewhere else after it closes at Signature this weekend. Because more people should get the chance to see this Giant. In the meantime, I’m grateful I did.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

And who said B&M never traveled outside of NYC?! Thanks for the review!

Vance said...

After seeing this, I think Betsy Morgan needs to be a star. She was simply fantastic and should be more famous than she is. If you look at her bio, she seems to have participated in tons of recent workshops of upcoming new musicals so it seems like she's getting known. Hopefully she'll get a big break soon.

Kevin Daly said...

"Giant" is such a phenomenal film, and I'm currently in the middle of the book.

So curious to see it as a musical and I hope it comes to NY soon!!