Monday, December 10, 2012

Everything is Bigger (and Better) in Texas

Review:  Giant
Giant stars Brian D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin share an intimate moment.
Giant, the latest work by the prolific if not quite mainstream composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, is by no means a perfect musical.  It struggles against the weight of its own ambition and the confines of the Public’s Newman Theatre, and yet remains thoroughly engaging for the majority of its three hour runtime.  Giant is theatrical proof of the old adage that those who shoot for the moon and miss still land among the stars, and for all of its flaws this fascinating show demands to be seen by any fan of serious musical theatre.

Based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, Giant chronicles three decades of life on a sprawling Texas cattle ranch called Reata.  Jordan “Bick” Benedict is the proud owner of this enormous swath of land, and Giant begins with his whirlwind courtship and marriage to wealthy Virginian socialite Leslie Lynnton.  A stranger in a strange land, Leslie struggles to come to terms with her new surroundings and the husband she hardly knows, while Bick fights to prevent former ranch hand Jett Rink and his government backers from drilling for oil on the previously unspoiled land. 

Like any good epic, Giant features a host of interrelated subplots vying for the audience’s attention, and it must be noted that LaChiusa and librettist Sybille Pearson haven’t quite found the proper balance among the various storylines.  Certain characters and incidents seem superfluous when viewed in the context of the larger narrative, while other elements feel underdeveloped or completely forgotten.  While it’s difficult to pinpoint any one portion of the show in need of major rewrites, a series of minor edits and subtle tweaks in focus would result in a more cohesive and integrated whole.  Everything in this current incarnation is exceedingly well done, but it doesn’t always feel necessary, and as a result interest starts to flag over the course of the musical’s long length.

Thankfully, Michael John LaChiusa’s score is nothing short of brilliant. Rapturous, lush, and gloriously sung, LaChiusa’s sweeping melodies are the product of a master working at the height of his artistic prowess.  LaChiusa manages the difficult trick of writing songs that feel familiar but also unexpected, traveling through a host of musical genres while maintaining a tonal cohesion that keeps the entire score sounding like the a unified vision.  One song segues beautifully into the next, and when you least expect it LaChiusa seamlessly incorporates a recurrent motif without resorting to full-fledged reprises.  The music soars, with lyrics that are at once conversational and poetic, and it is almost impossible not to be swept away by the grandeur of it all.

While LaChiusa’s score is the show’s unabashed highlight, the musical’s large cast proves equally masterful.  Anchoring the show with the greatest performance of his career, Brian D’Arcy James plays family patriarch Bick with the best possible mixture of bravado and sensitivity.  He radiates love for both the land and his family, even if his rough and tumble upbringing doesn’t always allow him to express it fully.  James’ buoyant physicality and expressive face communicate volumes without speaking, and his nuanced delivery of the show’s many soaring anthems establishes such a strong connection with the audience that his presence is felt even when he isn’t onstage.

The ever-radiant Kate Baldwin similarly astonishes as Leslie, displaying an even greater amount of the star quality that netted her a Tony nomination in the recent revival of Finian’s Rainbow.  Her Leslie is a complicated creature torn between her love of Bick (and later, their children) and her dissatisfaction with the life and social mores of rural Texas.  Yet Baldwin never allows Leslie to wallow in self-pity, displaying the quiet strength and steely determination we’ve come to associate with the great Southern women of American literature.  She also sings like a dream, navigating the tricky demands of LaChiusa’s score with the assured ease of a master vocalist.

PJ Griffith does excellent work as the musical’s pseudo-antagonist Jett, embodying the Good Old Boy archetype with sincerity and style.  It’s unfortunate the show doesn’t quite know what to do with him, as Jett never really feels connected to the other characters or to the story in general despite amble stage time.  Bobby Steggert and Mackenzie Mauzy are quite charming as Bick and Leslie’s children, although again the show doesn’t make full use of the characters’ potential.  Katie Thompson’s Vashti Hake Snythe has an even more tangential relation to the plot, but the commanding actress emerges as one of the evening’s highlights thanks to several outstanding solos.  The only person resembling a weak link is Michelle Pawk as Bick’s elder sister Luz Benedict, but after struggling with her first solo the actress recovers nicely.

Director Michael Greif and set designer Allen Moyer have done an excellent job squeezing this sprawling show into the relatively modest confines of the Newman Theatre, although their inventiveness only goes so far.  Creating a second level onstage to house the orchestra is a clever idea, although Greif’s insistence on placing some of his actors up there muddies the effect by bringing more focus to the already prominent musicians.  Moyer’s attempts at sweeping Texas vistas don’t quite read as such given the shallow stage, although the excellent lighting by Kenneth Posner goes a long way toward helping evoke the open sky.  Overall, the show looks lovely, even if the self-editing necessitated by the theatre’s size constraints is a little too apparent.

Giant is easily the most ambitious new musical of the season, and for that it must be commended.  Ferber’s novel was clearly a tough nut to crack, and the fact that the show does so much so well is a testament to the skill of all involved.  A top-notch cast and stunning score by LaChiusa make this an extremely rewarding show for theatre aficionados, and anyone with the slightest interest in Giant should make a point to see it before it closes this weekend.  Hopefully some adventurous producer will pick up the show for a Broadway transfer, as a larger theatre and one final round of revisions would make this one of the truly great musicals of the past 15 years.  But even in its current incarnation, this is a show that demands to be seen, and a shining example of the artistic heights the modern musical can achieve.

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