NEW YORK—Based on Edna Ferber’s classic novel, which also spawned an iconic film, the off-Broadway musical “Giant” (book by Sybille Pearson, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa), presents an epic tale of a Texas family dynasty. Events taking place circa 1925–1952, the family is threatened by change, generational angst, and ethnic prejudice.
Blessed with a sweeping score, strong source material, and top-notch acting, the musical, now at the Public Theater and presented in association with the Dallas Theater Center, certainly has a lot going for it.
Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Brian D’Arcy James), who with older sister Luz (Michelle Pawk) runs a sprawling ranch in East Texas, marries Virginia girl Leslie Lynnton (Kate Baldwin) after a whirlwind courtship.
This marriage does not sit well with Luz, who planned for Bick to marry Deluvina Obregon (Isabel Santiago), a woman from a neighboring ranch. The union would have joined both pieces of land.
Unsurprisingly, Luz doesn’t get along with Leslie, who finds out that marrying Bick also means marrying his ranch and all that goes with it. However, by quickly standing up to Luz, Leslie earns the respect of Deluvina and several others in the process.
Flash forward 16 years and all is not well. Bick and Leslie’s son Jordy (Bobby Steggert) is a meek, quiet sort who doesn’t care about the ranch or following in his father’s footsteps. Jordy is also in love with a Mexican girl, a no-no for the times.
Jordy’s rebellious sister, Lil Luz (Mackenzie Mauzy), finds herself intrigued by Jett Rink (P.J. Griffith). Jett is a former cowhand now trying to lease the land on the Benedict ranch in order to drill for oil—oil also being a forbidden topic where Bick is concerned.
As for Bick, he’s finding himself ill-suited to the changing times and unable to talk to Leslie about the frustration he feels. Leslie, meanwhile, rails against the Texas she has never really cared for and the fixed mentality and racial segregation she continually encounters.
Sadly, with so many plot points and situations to choose from (several more supplement the ones already mentioned) and the creative team’s seeming unwillingness to edit the material, the end project has an ultimately cluttered and incomplete feel.
Three of the characters who particularly suffer because of it are Jett, Luz, and Deluvina, all of whom are less well-used than they could be. Jett in particular, ends up looking like a caricature with no real emotional impact behind him.
Deluvina begins as an interesting counterpoint to Leslie but quickly fades into the woodwork until almost the final scene.
Pawk, who is excellent as Luz and has a lovely song at the top of Act 2 where she and Bick reminisce about life on the ranch, fares a bit better. Sadly, Luz’s final scene, which screams for closure, is left unresolved, at least in regard to her relationship with Bick.
One of few supporting characters who come off well is John Dossett as Jordan’s uncle “Brawley”; Brawley is the moral center of the story, and Dossett strongly commands his few brief but pivotal scenes.
James, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Bick, taking on and embodying the American cowboy persona as a no-nonsense man of principles; he’s in love with the land but unable to emotionally connect with his wife and son. As such, his reflective and quiet moments are resoundingly powerful, such as when he recalls his boyhood dreams and current hopes for the future.
Baldwin is excellent as Leslie, a woman continually out of her comfort zone as she tries to make a life for herself with the man she loves. A strong-willed sort with her own set of opinions, she finds it’s easier to go along with prevailing attitudes rather than making waves, thus, she becomes part of the problem instead of its solution.
The score by LaChiusa is wonderful, with tunes ranging from ballad to boogie-woogie. A particularly enjoyable number is the high-energy “Jump,” sung by someone about to go off to World War II. However, as the song features many characters who appear only briefly and who the audience never really gets a chance to know, the entire number ends up being somewhat extraneous.
Extraneous music is a common problem in the show, with several songs, especially those early in Act 1, that could have been easily replaced with a few lines of dramatic dialogue.
Direction by Michael Grief is fine, but it’s hamstrung by there being too much material in the script and not enough time to bring it all to life—and this is with a show currently clocking in at three hours.
“Giant” presents a classic case of a fascinating piece which needs to be either streamlined to clearly follow whichever main story the creative team wants to tell, or be expanded considerably to give those involved time to really do the material justice.
Also in the cast are Enrique Acevedo, Raul Aranas, Mary Bacon, Miguel Cervantes, Natalie Cortez, Rocío Del Mar Vallés, Jon Fletcher, Michael Halling, Doreen Montalvo, Allison Rogers, Martín Sola, Matthew Stocke, Katie Thompson, and William Youmans.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
Running time: 3 hours
Closes: Dec. 16
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.
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