Edna Ferber's Giant Gets a Musical Adaptation

Noted rancher: Brian d'Arcy James
Joan Marcus

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.

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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