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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Giant

Also see Susan's reviews of Arcadia and Legacy of Light

Giant
Lewis Cleale and Betsy Morgan
Advance word on Giant, the epic musical receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has focused on the size of the production: three acts with a running time of almost four hours, and a hard-working cast of 21. Much of the production, distilled from Edna Ferber's novel of Texas ranchers and oilmen by Sybille Pearson (book) and Michael John LaChiusa (music and lyrics), is engrossing and fascinating, but in its current form Giant is, undeniably, too much of a good thing; some judicious pruning could bring the work down to a more manageable three-hour length.

The story, which runs from 1925 through 1952, centers on the vast Reata Ranch owned by the Benedict family, beginning with the barbecue where Jordan Benedict (Lewis Cleale), known as Bick, introduces his eastern wife Leslie (Betsy Morgan) to his life in Texas. Leslie, educated and sheltered, was raised on a horse farm in Virginia, so she has to get used to the vast dry expanses of the ranch—and the impoverished Mexican laborers who make life comfortable for the Benedict family.

LaChiusa's score is rangy and more accessible than much of his work, embodying the many facets of the story and its characters: Mexican folk melodies, western swing, and 1950s rockabilly all take their turns. The lyrics have a plain-spoken poetry about them.

Director Jonathan Butterell and choreographer Ernesto Alonso Palma continue the theme of wide expanses with an almost bare stage. Dane Laffrey's scenic design mostly consists of pieces of furniture, with one ladder up to a platform, and the orchestra conducted by Chris Fenwick sits on a ledge over the playing area. Japhy Weideman's lighting design and Matt Rowe's sound design add to the portrait of a beautiful yet desolate landscape.

While Morgan gives a heartfelt performance as a woman of privilege learning about the rougher side of life, and Cleale is warmly empathetic, the most galvanizing performer in the cast is Ashley Robinson as Jett Rink, the bitter ranch hand who strikes oil and uses his wealth to indulge his resentment of the Benedicts. His threatening swagger animates his every scene and song.

Other standouts in the cast are Judy Blazer as Bick's older sister, who never quite gets past her distrust of the "outsider" her brother married; Katie Thompson as the neighboring rancher Vashti, who always thought she would marry Bick; John Dossett, underused as wise Uncle Bawley; and Jessica Grové as Bick and Leslie's spunky daughter.

Signature Theatre
Giant
April 28th - May 31st
A new musical based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Book by Sybille Pearson
Music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Miguel: Enrique Acevedo
Polo: Raul Aranas
Luz: Judy Blazer
Bick: Lewis Cleale
Bawley: John Dossett
Juana: Marisa Echeverria
Heidi/Lil' Luz: Jessica Grové
Pinky: Michael Thomas Holmes
Leslie: Betsy Morgan
Jordy Jr.: Jordan Nichols
Angel, Sr. and Jr.: Andres Quintero
Lupe: Michelle Rios
Jett: Ashley Robinson
Petra: Isabel Santiago
Mike: Paul A. Schaefer
Dimodeo: Martin Solá
Bob, Sr. and Jr./Lord Karfrey: Nick Spangler
Vashti: Katie Thompson
Lady Karfrey: Julie Tolivar
Analita: Mariand Torres
Adarene: Lori Wilner
Directed by Jonathan Butterell
Musical direction by Chris Fenwick
Choreographed by Ernesto Alonso Palma
MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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