The Dallas Theater Center is currently presenting one of its biggest shows ever, a world-premiere musical adaptation of Giant, co-produced with New York’s Public Theater. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this review.
- Front Row review
- TheaterJones review
- Critical Rant and Rave review
- Star-Telegram review
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- Art& Seek interview with composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa and bookwriter Sybille Pearson
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
In her original 1952 novel, Giant, Edna Ferber tried to evoke the sheer scale of West Texas. That visual vastness is also a cinematic highlight of the 1956 George Stevens film version of Giant with Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. Now, at the Dallas Theater Center, the empty, dusty West Texas landscape has never looked so gorgeous, thanks to Ken Posner’s cloud-dappled lighting and Allen Moyer’s sets. At times, the stage images evoke Thomas Hart Benton, other times it’s Edward Hopper.
And the show sounds terrific, too. Frankly, I went to Giant wondering why this show with its Texan and Mexican-American characters – why this, of all the Dallas Theater Center offerings — doesn’t have a single local actor in it.
Then I heard the cast sing.
Katie Thompson (left) plays a downhome Texas woman whom cattleman Jordan Benedict had long been expected to marry as they grew up — they’d marry and unite their family’s two ranching properties. But he jilts her for Leslie, the beautiful young Easterner he brings home to Reata, his huge ranch. Thompson, who was in the earlier, Signature Theatre version of Giant in Arlington, Virgina, is only one of the show’s powerhouse singers; they justify their casting.
Purely as a production, Giant is the most sophisticated musical the Theater Center has staged. Director Michael Greif has a gift for imbuing his shows with confidence. This thing just moves and feels right. With his three Tony nominations for such Broadway shows as Rent and Grey Gardens, Greif’s come a long way since his last Theater Center job: directing Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild, in the Basement of the Kalita Humphreys in 1988.
But unfortunately, what kills many new musicals isn’t the singing, the sets, the directing or even the music. It’s the book. Book problems are why classic shows like South Pacific or Wonderful Town or even Porgy and Bess get re-written when they’re revived: particular characters don’t make sense, we lose interest in the storyline as it goes along, the jokes or material grows stale.
It’s also a fact: Very few successful musicals have been made from epic novels. They’re mostly derived from short stories (Cabaret), previous dramas (My Fair Lady) or memoirs (The King and I). Les Miserables, Edna Ferber’s Showboat and Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars may be the only notable shows inspired by sizable novels, and we can argue about which ones of those qualify as great musicals.
With a novel, you simply have to rip out so much story, and you still end up with too much story. Giant follows Leslie and Jordan’s marriage from the late ‘20s to the mid-‘50s. Over those thirty years, we watch his cattle empire turn into an oil empire. Children are born, characters die. World War II comes and goes, the treatment of women and Mexican-Americans changes in Texas. Post-war prosperity comes, radical-conservative oil money pours into politics.
That’s a lot of background and social history. Not surprisingly, some plot lines and characters just seem to blip on, then off. A potential, adulterous relationship, for instance — an affair between Leslie and Jett Rink, a ranch hand — gets all heated up and then vanishes. Audience members seemed to think that the appealing, young Latino ranch hand, Angel, played by Miguel Cervantes, popped out of nowhere for one musical number in the second act, and then he goes off to war. They didn’t catch that he’s also the impoverished, possibly sickly infant at the very beginning whom Leslie intercedes to help.
One appeal of big, melodramatic sagas like Les Miz is the feeling of “sweep,” the ability to convey an overwhelming epochal moment. It’s a chunk of history that’s bigger than any single character but one that the characters, in part, come to embody. In Les Miz, it’s the people’s hunger for justice and the hollowness of the ancien regime. What is it in Giant? The loss of traditional uses of the land? The coarsening of Texas values? The rise of the oil depletion allowance? There doesn’t seem to be any one moment or historic movement at the heart of the musical. Ferber’s Showboat, by the way, suffers from much this same wandering weakness. It lacks focus, as it chronicles race relations along the Mississippi, a dying mode of travel and stage entertainment, the passing of the Old South.
Perhaps that’s not so important, though, as the fact that in Giant, we view all this history through Leslie’s eyes. And we’re not going to get swept up that way. She’s very much like the schoolmarm in an old Western. She brings her book-larnin’ and proper Eastern breeding to the uncivilized frontier. Leslie disapproves of much of what she sees in Texas: women shooed away from men’s business, the brutal neglect of immigrant workers. Certainly, we may agree with her but it doesn’t help that performer Kate Baldwin doesn’t warm her up much. She starts off girlish and enraptured — Baldwin has to age a quarter-century, after all — but soon, Leslie feels (and stays) a little chilly or removed. She may become “Texas’ greatest hostess” along the way, but she feels like an outsider to the very end.
In short, Giant wants to embrace Texas – and to hold it at a distance. There’s a dramatic tension here but also an emotional stalemate. For his part, rancher Jordan loves Texas and loves Leslie — deeply. For her part, Leslie loves Jordan — but Texas, she’s deeply conflicted about and for good reasons. That’s how the couple starts, and even as everything else changes around them, that’s pretty much where they’re stuck. The accommodations reached at the end — doing good with tainted oil money — are not emotionally persuasive, not unless composer Michael John LaChiusa can come up with a mighty rousing musical statement to sell it to us.
As a Texas patriarch, Aaron Lazar does a fine job as Jordan “Bick” Benedict, a man who could easily come across as a stick. In the film version, Rock Hudson plays Bick’s more domineering and even racist qualities almost shyly, nervously — as in ‘Gosh, Miss Leslie, you just don’t understand, that’s the way Mexicans like to be mistreated.’ He can do that because … he’s Rock Hudson. His boyish Bick instinctively seems to realizes these traditions are something to be ashamed of. Lazar is more mature, more forthright, laying down the law. He risks being unsympathetic — and giving Leslie even more reason to wonder what she’s doing here.
Speaking of history and traditions, Giant tries to demonstrate the hold that Texas and family have on Bick with his sister Luz (Dee Hoty) coming back as a ghost. Even in Shakespeare, directors have to work to make ghosts scenes convincing; there ought to be another, more compelling way to convey how much Bick loves his heritage. It’s to Lazar’s credit that he plays the scene as credibly as he does. Ironically, in this musical, Texas history feels most real and affecting in Bick’s moments with Uncle Bawley (the excellent John Dossett) — even as Bawley himself is arguing that Bick should leave the past behind.
When Giant does go for big melodrama, it piles it on. Jett Rink is the resentful young ranch hand who strikes it rich with oil. He’s like an unwanted stepchild, a naïve, angry country boy, and P. J. Griffith, who plays Jett, is a riveting performer. But his Jett starts as a grinning lounge lizard. In his first encounter with Leslie, he’s almost literally, the snake in the Garden of Eden. By the end, bookwriter Sybille Pearson has made Jett into a vulgar, bullying villain like something, well, out of an old melodrama. He’s a bigot, even a proto-fascist, a kind of wildcatter Elmer Gantry. He’s the Ugly Texan re-born (see The Chase, Major King Kong in Dr. Strangelove, the right-wingers in Executive Action and dozens of other films). He carries all the sins of Texas, the sins of the oil industry, even the sins of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. We’re clearly meant to hear these echoes but they’re too loud. They’re too much, too simplistic.
I realize most theatergoers won’t care, but some of this problem actually originates with Ferber’s novel. It’s not so much that she demonized the oil industry, which she did and which the industry certainly deserved. But in the bargain, Ferber romanticized the cattle industry. In her novel and in Stevens’ film (and in such pop-Texana as the TV show, Dallas), ranching is portrayed as more ‘natural,’ more historic, more family-based, noble and heroic, not so grubby, greedy and profit-oriented as pumping petroleum out of the ground. Tell that to the cattle and to the dead-tired, low-paid ranch hands. And tell it to the tough old ranchers themselves whose profit margins were often so slim, so vulnerable, they’d sacrifice whole herds to break even.
As a composer-lyricist, Michael John LaChiusa is often compared to Stephen Sondheim. He’s incredibly smart with interweaving songs into dramatic action and he’s so gifted he can shift in and out of various musical styles, pinpointing a scene’s tone with grace or grandeur. His music often provides some of the show’s ‘sweep’ with its lushness. He can give us a rousing brass anthem, a lovely Mexican ballad and a terrific jump blues [excerpt from Jump].
But we hear that somber, wordless brass anthem once, only as a transition. Too bad it never reappears. And that jump blues comes late in Act 2 (left) when we’re truly hungry for a lively dance number, something to change the pace after two hours, kick a little life into the action. Clearly, LaChiusa and Pearson are more comfortable with irony and ambivalence, with setting out polar views of Texas: Anglo vs. Latino, past vs. future, male vs. female, cattle vs. oil. It’s typical that when one character, Pinky (William Youmans), tries to belt out a jingoistic version of Alamo history, Pearson and LaChiusa offset him with a young boy (Matt Doyle), who pokes holes in the story with some unpleasant facts.
Irony and ambivalence have been the heart of many of Stephen Sondheim’s shows as well. But his musicals usually deepen and fascinate as they go on. Giant mostly seesaws in the same emotional place — for three hours. Yes, Giant is operatic — meaning it’s rich and expansive, it looks gorgeous and the music’s often lovely.
But ‘operatic’ is also code for long.