One hates to write anything negative about a show like Giant. Book writer Sybille Pearson has maintained the progressive themes from Edna Ferber’s classic novel, and musician Michael John LaChiusa has, in typical fashion, crafted character-centric songs rather than hollow showstoppers. Michael Greif, a director known for leading rich musicals as varied as Rent and Grey Gardens, helms the show, which includes a cast of New York musical favorites like Kate Baldwin, Brian D’Arcy James and Michele Pawk.
This show is clearly a well-intentioned musical. And yet, remember that adage about the best of intentions? Giant doesn’t yield the worst of results – but this sprawling, epic show veers off course. Where exactly does it go wrong?
Let’s start at the very start. Pearson gets the ball rolling in Giant – which covers over a quarter-century on the Texas rich run by Jordan “Bick” Benedict (D’Arcy James) – with Bick’s rapid courtship of Leslie (Baldwin) at her Virginia home. Much of the show’s remaining three-plus hours will circle around Bick and Leslie’s growing estrangement and her culture shock upon moving to Texas, where Bick and his loyal but prickly sister, Luz (Pawk) live for their land. But this initial plot point happens so suddenly, and their union develops with such seeming ease, that its fraying from 1925 to 1952 seems to come out of nowhere, leading to an emotionally empty through-line for the show.
Other problems, too, arise as Pearson charts Ferber’s ideas about bigotry toward Mexican people, which clogs the show’s action and loses structural focus. Miguel Cervantes provides a second act highlight with the effervescent number “Jump,” but it sadly lacks much insight into character. On the other hand, LaChiusa, entwining folk and country stylings of both past and present, does concoct several storyline-enhancing numbers, notably “The Desert,” “Heartbreak Country,” and “Midnight Blues.”
But as the Benedicts’ son, Jordy (a stilted Bobby Steggert) falls for the Mexican Juana (Natalie Cortez, wonderful), the second act clogs with repetitive ruminations on their verboten pairing; whatever sense of loss the audience should feel about Bick and Leslie erodes from distraction. A welcome scene, however, includes Leslie and two of her aging gal pals, Katie Thompson’s Vashti Hake Snythe and the underused Mary Bacon’s Adarene Morley bonding over their shared fears and disappointments. It’s a wonderful glance into the universal and specific thinking of the era. Snythe, in particular, as the tomboyish neighbor who thought she was destined to marry Bick, darn near steals the whole show. (Pawk and John Dossett – Pawk’s real-life husband – as Bick’s Uncle Bawley, give her theft a run for its money). One wishes LaChiusa and Pearson had given equally time to Mackenzie Mauzy (heretofore best known for TV’s “The Bold and the Beautiful”) as Jordy’s sister, Lil Luz.
Greif lassoes in smart performances from leads Baldwin and D’Arcy James, onstage whose alter egos both retreat into their own worlds of wisdom and regret. If I have yet to even mention rogue ranch hand Jett Rink (an unfocused P J Griffith), though, that isn’t an accident. While James Dean essayed the role in George Stevens’ Oscar-winning film adaptation, Jett doesn’t make much of a narrative dent here. He’s a minor distraction for Leslie and an intermittent pain to Bick. And while Allen Moyer’s set design of scrims and silhouettes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting gently evoke big ranch life, there’s no replication of Dean’s most iconic moment from the movie, showering himself in newly found liquid gold.
While Giant’s running time has already been shortened (it reportedly ran for four hours at Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater), it could still benefit from further paring. Still, that’s no excuse for the Public Theater’s drastically short intermission, in which most audience members had barely made it out of the of the theater and few to the restrooms before they were being yelled at to return to their seats. The onus of show length compression falls on the creative team, not a paying audience, and such rough treatment makes for a sour, hostile viewing experience. We get it: life on the ranch was hard and required sacrifices. But those in their seats should only be required to witness such hardship, not experience their own.
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Thru Dec. 2. www.publictheater.org.
Tags: Brian D'Arcy James, Broadway, Doug Strassler, Edna Ferber, Giant, Kate Baldwin, manhattan, Michael Greif, Michael John LaChiusa, Michele Pawk, New York theater, NYC, Public Theatre, Sybille Pearson, Theater, theater review
Trackback from your site.