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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brian d'Arcy James, John Dossett, and Kate Baldwin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

For all the fuss that's made during it about endless tracts of earth unfolding beneath infinite horizons, Giant, the Michael John LaChiusa¬ĖSybille Pearson musical now having its premiere at The Public Theater's Newman Theater, is strangely cramped and cluttered. You would think—or perhaps "hope" is a better word—that this adaptation of Edna Ferber's 1952 novel about two generations of a Texas family that oversee the state's transition into an oil-producing powerhouse would have open air and hundreds of miles of prairie to spare. But the prevailing sense you get from this potentially gorgeous show is one of inward-looking busyness.

What makes Giant's ramblings and stumblings particularly frustrating is that many parts of it rank among the best not only of the last year, or the decade, but potentially longer than that. LaChiusa, a uniquely gifted showmaker most acclaimed as a composer, and who has premiered four musicals (including See What I Wanna See, First Lady Suite, and his masterpiece The Wild Party) under the auspices of The Public, has written here some of the strongest songs of his career, capturing in word, sound, and style the changing aural landscape of one America's most curious regions. As he guides you between wind-swept wastes, encroaching urban sprawl, and the barrenness of soul both those territories elicit, LaChiusa makes it clear that he's composing a history of not just Texas, but America itself.

Styles melt from gentle country to local folk to radio-ready pop, with plenty of LaChiusa's own twisty stylings in there as well to link them all together. Regardless of whether a song is about the "Heartbreak Country" of the untamed frontier, comparing upward mobility to a checkers game (the '50s-bouncy "Jump"), probing the nights for a reason to go on ("Midnight Blues"), or surveying the desolate sands to better understand a long-ago promise (the involved and involving song scene called "The Desert"), you are always fully transported. The Western-stroked score, orchestrated with mesquite smoke by Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman, make the second largest state in the Union sound as colorful and complex as the real place.

Pearson has no trouble matching LaChiusa, with her book often laying out clearly the characters and questions at the heart of this work. She introduces us to cattle magnate Jordan Benedict (better known as Bick) and the inexperienced Virginian girl, Leslie, he takes as his bride (and, let's face it, queen), then sweeps through the impact their marriage has on Bick's ranch, Reata, and the state itself.

Bick's older sister Luz; his expected but spurned fianc√©e Vashti; the untrustworthy hired hand Jett; and Bick and Leslie's children, Jordy and Lil Luz, are among those who pay hefty prices for Bick's departures from the old ways. Pearson recognizes not just the bubbling emotions beneath their interactions, which of course play out against a backdrop of expansive (and frequently foolhardy) pride and suppressed regret, but also the bigger picture of how these people relate to the very different worlds outside and within their borders—with a particular focus on the Mexicans who work for, and ultimately transform, them.

New musicals this rich are rare in New York or anywhere else. But it's worth remembering what Bick and his clan learn over the 27 years the show covers: Wealth matters less than what's done with it. And, sadly, most of Giant's is squandered, in three separate but linked ways.

First is the staging. Director Michael Greif has largely ignored, if not repudiated outright, the story's insistence on Texas's wide open spaces and delivered a more scattered, claustrophobic staging than he has with any other musical to date, including Next to Normal, Grey Gardens, or Rent. Central to Allen Moyer's set is a half drop depicting a cloudy blue sky that flies in and out, apparently at random, either closing off the playing area and revealing the hefty orchestra and conductor Chris Fenwick, or obscuring them and revealing a sad scrim before which rickety set pieces (oil derricks, a cactus, that type of thing) are sometimes placed and lit by lighting designer Kenneth Posner, as is so much of the show, in silhouette.

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Worse is that a rolling water tower that plays a prominent role in several scenes consumes nearly half the Newman stage when it's in place. If, as rumored, this show is being planned for a Broadway run, one can surmise that this would have a less-adverse effect on a broader stage. Regardless, Greif allows no one the room or time they need to move or grow, which prevents the action from seeming live and instead gives every scene the patina of a faded postcard.

The acting is a second challenge. Of the 22-person company, only three actors in significant roles make the impressions they need to. PJ Griffith is subtly threatening as Jett, unleashing additional romantic nuances as he interacts with Leslie and her daughter that keep the creepiness factor high but not unduly so. As Lil Luz, Mackenzie Mauzy is just as sharp and spirited as she needs to be to convince as one Benedict determined to keep tradition alive. And John Dossett lends way-worn kindliness to Uncle Bawley, Bick's inspiring uncle and the only one completely on his side.

Every other major role is miscast—in some cases, drastically so. Brian d'Arcy James, cast as Bick, reads as authoritatively Texan as a plate of sushi, wielding barely any noticeable vocal twang and looking like an Upper West Sider going "Southern" for Halloween. Despite singing forcefully, Kate Baldwin suffers and hardens not a bit as Leslie, and is so cool and bulletproof throughout that you believe neither her initial trepidation about, nor her eventual assimilation into, Reata life. Michele Pawk possesses the right tenacity for Luz, but sounds so outmatched by the score that her performance can be painful to listen to. Bobby Steggert and Natalie Cortez, as Jordy and his forbidden betrothed Juana, are sunny but static in their crucial scenes.

Most damaging of all, however, is that LaChiusa and Pearson have not made enough wise choices about what to present or how to present it. You can point to individual lapses, such as not sufficiently establishing in speech or song what drew Bick and Leslie together in the first place, characters singing at ostensibly important length and then vanishing for scenes (or hours) that dilute any impact they might have had, why Bick and Luz waste the first song of the second act recapping things they and we have known for 16 years of play time, and so on. Things are just not organized well.

These gaps and inconsistencies probably stem, at least in part, from Giant's initial conception as a four-hour, three-act epic. Performed that way in 2009, at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, the elemental connections had more freedom to develop naturally over time in ways that pulled you in gradually. Because the new version sacrifices no major characters or plot threads from the original but addresses them with a 45-minute-shorter running time, everything must gasp even more frantically for air. The show was hardly perfect before—the notion of what and how much the characters should do has been shaky from the start—but it felt vibrant, alive, and whole in a way this CliffsNotes rendition never does.

That Giant has retained as much power as it has in light of all this is a testament to how far it towers above most other musicals today. If you want a glimpse of what the art form is still capable of, you need to buy tickets immediately—but a glimpse, alas, is all you'll get. Watching Bick, Leslie, Jordy, and the rest fight for (and about) what they believe in is as intellectually fulfilling a conflict as you'll see at the theatre this winter. But for all the brilliance LaChiusa and Pearson have injected into their writing, the plethora of things they've left half-finished are enough to strand you in heartbreak country yourself.

Through December 12
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets and current schedule:

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