If the world were a little more just and the general public’s taste for musical theatre a lot more cerebral, news of a new Michael John LaChiusa musical would cause the same kind of box office frenzy that in the 1940s and 50s greeted announcements of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s latest. Or at least match the high expectations these days whenever another Stephen Sondheim revival is mounted.
His past musicals have explored themes such as the feminism of celebrity, the power of sexual dynamics, the mad crumbling of an underground artistic society and the comforting allure of addiction. But the price Mr. LaChiusa pays for being a prolific composer, lyricist and (usually) bookwriter of challenging, textually complex musicals covering unique subjects and composed with a keener ear toward dramatic enrichment than catchy melodies is a New York career made up primarily of limited runs backed by non-profits and appreciated by connoisseurs of artistic musical theatre but never touched by commercial producers looking to please the tourists who require a fun time in exchange for their astronomical ticket investment.
Giant, written in collaboration with bookwriter Sybille Pearson and now running at The Public, seems oddly conventional at first glance. It’s based on a classic American novel by Edna Ferber that was given greater name recognition value when Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean starred in the film version. Structured in the traditional dialogue and song form, its 22-member cast sings a gorgeous and dramatic collection of musical styles from the plot’s 1920s-50s timeline as 17 musicians play sweeping and textured orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman that reflect the musical’s Southwest Texas setting.
But like another Ferber novel, the one that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted for the musical stage, Show Boat, Giant is saturated with a community of characters that can be more completely explored through the lengthy chapters of a book than through the lingering storytelling techniques of musical theatre. The stage version of Show Boat, which, despite its greatness, has seen revisions for every major production, is held together by the unifying theme of the unmerciful river being the one constant through the passage of time. Giant lacks such a unifier and its central relationship, once established so well, is frequently set aside to introduce a collection of characters that have their big moments and are then set aside themselves. The material is consistently of extremely high quality, performed by an excellent cast in a production that director Michael Greif paints with beauteously majestic strokes. If Giant ultimately lacks the emotional completeness that less ambitious musicals have achieved, it nevertheless displays three hours of rapturous musical theatre drama that must be seen by anyone with affection for the art form.
“Twenty-seven years and all I know about you is what you need: Your land. Your ranch. Besides being your wife, I don't know what I am to you,” says progressive Virginian Leslie to her Texas rancher husband Bick in the musical’s opening scene. The authors will soon take us back to when they first met as he traveled east to buy a racehorse from her father. Spending married life together on the ranch named Reata, Leslie has to deal with the rougher lifestyle of her new home, though she never accepts the legal discrimination against Mexicans. Bick must deal with his home state’s changing political climate and economy, as he resists pressure to ditch his cattle for oil rigs.
Near the evening’s conclusion, a return to that opening moment, the authors provide a sublime musical scene where the reserve, unemotional couple open up to each other with their contrasting dreams for the future. There is no climactic kiss or grand romantic display; just the understanding that they need to communicate with each other. It’s a moment so fresh and so unexpectedly real that you might consider yourself to be witnessing the next great American musical.
Another one of those moments comes early in the second act, when Bick sings an empathetic soliloquy about the son who disappoints him by dutifully doing his chores but preferring to stay engrossed with his books, and his pride in the daughter who shares his passion for adventure.
Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin are both excellent as Bick and Leslie, particularly when the composer allows his voice to grandly soar to an upper register and hers to captivate with ethereal warmth. These are two polished and professional musical theatre actors given characters, dialogue and musical moments that allow them to excel at what they do best and Giant is at its best when focused on their youthful optimism and sNappy Give-and-take dissolving tragically with every disappointment.
That’s not to discredit outstanding contributions by the supporting company, such as Michele Pawk as Bick’s gritty and headstrong sister, Luz, John Dossett as his philosophically crusty uncle, Bawley and PJ Griffith as Jett Rink, the ranch-hand who becomes Bick’s adversary in more ways than one.
LaChiusa provides a somber Mexican folk song of lost love to open and close the evening, introduced in Spanish by Raul Aranas as a once-robust vaquero succumbing to old age. The second act gets a jolt of boogie-woogie rhythm when Miguel Cervantes, as a young ranch-hand entering the military, sings and dances of the excitement of youthful risk-taking, joined by Mackenzie Mauzy and Bobby Steggert as Bick and Leslie’s teenage children. Their ambitious dreams are softly countered by Natalie Cortez as the Mexican girl who sings of growing up discouraged from having ambition and now dreams of being a schoolteacher who will help Mexican children learn to claim a dignified place in the world.
While the Public’s Newman Theater is too small to allow the audience to feel the spaciousness of the musical’s setting, set designer Allen Moyer and lighting designer Kenneth Posner enhance the text greatly with majestic visuals.
When Giant premiered in 2009 at the Signature Theatre outside of Washington, D.C., it clocked in at four hours. And while I didn’t see that longer version, this “condensed” production absolutely adheres to the showbiz adage of leaving ‘em wanting more, which may not be the best thing for a musical drama. Still, Giant, in its current state, is a major achievement.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Brian d'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin; Bottom: PJ Griffith and Michelle Pawk.
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