[Dear reader: The musical Giant played an extended run at the Public Theater from October 26th to December 16th, 2012. I saw the show twice, once in previews and once after it opened. Then I got caught up in the end of the semester at the Boston Conservatory, and blogging took a backseat to grading. Although Giant has closed, I'm publishing this belated review in anticipation of any future productions of the show, as well as the upcoming cast recording. --C.C.]
Periodically, I will see a show and have a negative reaction to it, only to discover that, when the reviews come out, my views on the show are at significant odds with the critical consensus. Now, I'm perfectly fine being the cheese that stands alone, but depending on the particular critical voices involved, I may decide to give the show a second chance.
This happened last year with A Minister's Wife, a show that left me cold upon first viewing. But some of my critical mentors and colleagues were far more positive about the show in their reviews, and these were people whose opinions I respect greatly. So I saw A Minister's Wife again, and developed a significant fondness for the show upon seeing it a second time. The cast recording has since become one of my favorites, and the score just keeps getting richer every time I listen to it.
Well, darned if something sort of similar didn't happen with Giant, the new Michael John LaChiusa musical that just finished an extended run at The Public Theater. The musical is based on the Edna Ferber novel of the same name (which was also made into the 1956 motion picture starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.) I've never been much of a fan of LaChiusa. I generally find his shows intellectually admirable but sorely lacking in genuine human feeling. (Queen of the Mist being only the most recent example.)
I was encouraged when I heard that LaChiusa was working with a separate librettist on Giant, namely Sybille Pearson. (LaChiusa normally writes his own libretti.) Pearson did an admirable job on Baby, making what could have been a series of character types into sympathetic people. I thought perhaps that LaChiusa's artistic ambitions combined with Pearson's human touch might finally make for a LaChiusa musical that I could genuinely enjoy rather than merely admire.
Well, the first time I saw Giant, the show felt like your typical LaChiusa musical: too much ambition, not enough heart. It seemed as though LaChiusa and Pearson were trying to tell too much of the story from the original novel, and as a result the characters felt thin, the story attenuated. By the time I had a chance to start caring about a particular character, the book would introduce what seemed like an entirely new set of people, and the process would begin again. I left the theater resolved to write a review that essentially said that LaChiusa had failed me yet again.
Then the reviews came out, and I found that I was in a fairly significant minority in this respect. Many of my critical colleagues saw tremendous merit in Giant (including Terry Teachout, Steven Suskin, and Andy Propst), one of them even calling it a "masterpiece." Plus, my friend Geoff, one of my favorite people whom I've had the pleasure of meeting through my blogging experience, and whose opinion I also greatly prize, was similarly rhapsodic about the show.
So, I saw Giant again, a couple of weeks later, just to see if maybe I was missing something. However, I did not experience a change of heart about the show. I saw more to admire in terms of the craft, but I didn't become enamored of any of these people on stage, nor did I particularly care about their trials and travails. I did find myself with a greater appreciation of what LaChiusa and Pearson were trying to do with the show, but I was never transported, nor even fully diverted.
Giant covers a lot of chronological territory: from 1925 to 1952. The story involves a Texas ranch owner who impetuously marries an Eastern girl who has trouble fitting into his world. The rest of the show follows 27 years of their marriage, during which time the rancher feels pressure from various angles to allow oil companies to drill on his his land. There's also a significant subplot regarding racism toward the Mexicans that work and live on the ranch.
Clearly, Giant has Show Boat ambitions, which seems fitting, as Show Boat is also based on an Edna Ferber novel. But whereas Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern found ways of making the people real and the sweeping story comprehensible, LaChiusa and Pearson haven't achieved either. Apparently, the authors had major challenges getting the show down to three hours. (It was four hours in previous incarnations). But there are still too many characters, too many story lines, and not enough palpable human emotion.
Along the way, we're subjected to some rather stilted, purple dialog. At one point Bick (Brian d'Arcy James), the head rancher, says to Leslie, his soon-to-be wife (Kate Baldwin), "There's a stillness about you like the stillness in the Rockies." I mean, who talks like that? It's possible that line came straight from the book, but that doesn't mean it sounds realistic on stage. Later, during a moment of conflict, we hear the following interchange between the two:Leslie: That is an unreachable horizon. I've never seen such emptiness.
Bick: That's genuine freedom out there.
Again, not exactly a free-flowing, natural interchange. And later in the show, one of the characters spouts the following line: "The easier things get, the harder it is to be a good steward to the land." Yeesh.
Again, all of this may have come from Ferber, but as I say numerous times to my students, accuracy to one's source is neither desirable nor necessary. My Fair Lady changed George Bernard Shaw. West Side Story changed Shakespeare. What matters is what's right for the piece at hand, and too often, the dialog to Giant sounds like something out of a dime novel or a spaghetti western. Perhaps director Michael Greif could have infused the show with a bit more life, but the production as a whole felt like a series of static stage pictures and vistas rather than credible human interactions.
As for LaChiusa's score, I have to say that it seemed a lot more tuneful and purposeful the second time around, not unlike what happens with your typical Sondheim score. The show starts with a rather generic opening number: "Did Spring Come to Texas?" Yes, the song serves a purpose: it both establishes time and place and reveals character, specifically that of Bick. But really all we learn about Bick here is that he loves Texas. Later, Bick sings "Heartbreak Country," in which we're supposed to understand that Bick's love for his land has been causing the tension between him and his new wife, but it really felt more like a manufactured complication. (I mean, can't he love both his land and his wife? What's the big deal here?)
LaChiusa has more success later in the show crafting character numbers, particularly those for Bick's Uncle Bawley, played here with tremendous heart and passion by John Dossett. Bawley helps Bick reach two important epiphanies over the course of the show, and LaChiusa and Dossett came together to create two of the most moving and memorable moments in Giant: "Look Back/Look Ahead" and "A Place in the World."
What's more, LaChiusa sporadically reveals himself as a deft descendant of Rodgers and Hammerstein in crafting a "Soliloquy"-like number for Bick at the top of act two, and an ambitious musical confrontation scene between Bick and Leslie for the 11 o'clock position in the show. Both numbers show the promise of what Giant could have been, or perhaps could be some day, if the level of characterization and complexity of human emotion that both of these sequences evince could be sustained throughout the show.
The cast, for me, was a bit spotty. Brian d'Arcy James was rather stiff as Bick, and his line delivery felt forced, as if somehow through sheer vocal projection he was going to make his character epic. The lovely Kate Baldwin is still in fine, crystalline voice, and both times I saw the show, she exhibited laser-sharp acting choices. Michelle Pawk as Bick's sister, Luz, gave a disappointingly one-note performance, spewing each line as though she were aiming for a spittoon. As I also mentioned, John Dossett was far more effective here than when I last saw him on stage in...yeesh...Mamma Mia. And, to give you a sense of how over-populated Giant is with characters, how often does the wonderful Bobby Steggert get lost in the crowd? This is hardly Steggart's fault: his character (Bick and Leslie's son) is woefully underwritten. But, I ask you, to cast Bobby Steggart in a musical and then only give him a fraction of a song at the very end of the show? Criminal.
So, I'm genuinely glad that I gave Giant another chance, even if my second viewing only reaffirmed my resolve. Michael John LaChiusa remains for me a composer/lyricist of irreproachable ambition, and I genuinely look forward to the day when I see a show of his that matches that ambition with the execution that his ideas deserve.