Edna Ferber's Giant Gets a Musical Adaptation

Tepid Texas tuner

Texas is large, mostly flat, and famous for its seemingly endless horizons. Giant (Public Theater), the new musical version of Edna Ferber's 1950 novel, salutes Texas's topography by also being large, mostly flat emotionally, and seemingly endless. Watching it, I often wished that Ferber had written, and Michael John LaChiusa had musicalized, a taut, brief saga set in Rhode Island. Sadly, Providence was not so kind.

LaChiusa, a gifted and resourceful writer-composer, has created works of real distinction on a smaller scale, like First Lady Suite and last year's Queen of the Mist. But his grander ambitions too often tempt him to sprawl, and multigenerational sagas set on multimillion-acre ranches give one a lot of sprawling room. Book writer Sybille Pearson lays out long, fajita-like strands of time-jumping narrative, which LaChiusa's numbers, though sometimes sizzling, do little to cook into theatrical shape. The steady succession of aria-like solo declarations suggests a song cycle rather than a theater event.

Ferber tailored Giant to the pattern that also gave musical-theater makers the classic Show Boat and the less successful Saratoga: An intelligent, sensitive woman falls for a tough-minded, sexually magnetic man, whose self-willed obstinacy brings conflict, forcing her to learn her inner strength, often amid a scene of social strife that tests both her spunk and her liberal creds.

Noted rancher: Brian d'Arcy James
Joan Marcus
Noted rancher: Brian d'Arcy James

Details

Giant
By Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555, publictheater.org

In Giant, a refined Easterner, Leslie (Kate Baldwin), marries hard-nosed millionaire rancher "Bick" Benedict (Brian d'Arcy James). He sweeps her away to Texas, to confront extreme culture shock, injustice toward the native Mexicans, and the unconcealed hostility of Bick's older sister, Luz (Michele Pawk), who dies abruptly, but lingers as an embittered ghost (Pawk's riveting voice and presence being too good to waste), feeding her baby brother bad advice.

Even so, Leslie learns to love both Bick and his land, as well as to give the Latinos a social boost. Meantime, her kids (Mackenzie Mauzy and Bobby Steggert) grow up, rebellious, to Bick's dismay. Worse, his ranch falls under the malevolent thumb of Jett Rink (P.J. Griffith), local bad boy turned oil entrepreneur. The Texas sunset into which Bick and Leslie walk off is full of questions, which they can luckily face in monied comfort.

In Michael Greif's staging, clean but too often static against the wide-screen projected backdrops, everything looks and sounds good, though never particularly Texan. The performers are largely excellent; James is tireless and superb. Only Giant's reason for existing has gotten lost, somewhere along that vast horizon.

 
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1 comments
ToscasKiss
ToscasKiss

Judging by the production as it was earlier this year in Dallas, I feel quite differently about GIANT,  liking it a lot, and loving parts of it, though I can understand there are probably many folk to whom it would not appeal.  Surely, though, there were more performances and moments worthy of mention--or did you not find that so?  I was so impressed by both Katie Thompson and Natalie Cortez (I hope her solo early-ish in the second act is still in the show), it's surprising to me to read a review that doesn't single them out.  I loved Matt Doyle as Jordy, but have heard good reports of Bobby Steggert.  Miguel Cervantes, too, really shone in his song.  Did the orchestral ensemble and its director not make any impression?

 

I guess the fact that so little of your brief review is actually about the show indicates how negatively you felt about it (or, I guess, how little it made you feel).  You're certainly not alone, but I would have hoped for a little more detail and more specifics in the review, given how much I respect your work and opinions.  Then again, it sounds like it was that kind of experience for you, where it just didn't stir much interest, such that you're not even interested in delving deeper into what didn't work or why.  It appears that, with GIANT, Mr. LaChiusa, along with Ms. Pearson, has written another very polarizing show.

 
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