Texas is on the minds of many Americans as of late. A petition for the state to secede from the union was submitted last week, requesting the White House “Peacefully grant the State of Texas to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own NEW government.” Just days after the 2012 Presidential election, rumors of another Bush presidency are already circulating. And while Giant, the new musical currently in performances at the Public Theater, does not address the topics of secession or presidency, it certainly does attempt to amass the entirety of this enormous state.
Based on Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer-winning 1952 novel, which was adapted into a 1956 film of the same name starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, the stage adaptation of Giant features a score by Michael John LaChiusa and a book by Sybille Pearson. Directed by Michael Greif and running at a lengthy time of three hours and 15 minutes, Giant follows three generations of a family that lives on a 2.5 million-acre ranch. Told through flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, Giant follows Jordan ”Bick” Benedict (Bryan D’Arcy James), who meets Leslie (Kate Baldwin) when he travels to Virginia to buy a horse from her father.
The two are quickly infatuated with each other and marry after only three weeks, but upon arriving at Reata, Bick’s ranch, Leslie quickly learns she is not only married to a man, but his land as well. Slighted by Bick’s sister Luz (Michele Pawk , in a solid performance) and uncomfortable with the racial relations between Caucasians and Mexicans, Leslie, who had once idealized the wide open spaces of Texas, promises to learn to love the land but instead is lonely and isolated, forced into the role of the “best hostess in Texas,” even if she is hosting events for causes she does not support.
James’ performances are never short on charm, and his voice is well-suited to Bick’s songs. But despite his capable depiction of Bick’s conflict and resistance to the rapid change surrounding him, he does not invoke the sympathy needed for Bick to be the real lead of this show. The lovely Baldwin is excellent as Leslie, a woman trapped in a world she does not understand and is unable to change. One only wishes she had more opportunities to show Leslie’s backbone as she begins to stand up to her husband.
While Bick and Leslie are the central characters of Giant, they are joined by a vast supporting cast, including Jett Rink (a smooth and sly PJ Griffith), who is a threat to Bick and Leslie’s marriage as well as the ranch itself, hoping to drill the land for oil. Leslie and Bick’s children are performed by Mackenzie Mauzy as the spunky Luz, and the always excellent Bobby Steggert as Jordy Jr., the self-effacing son who finally stands up to his father when he falls for Juana (Natalie Cortez). Bick’s uncle Bawley is given a standout performance by John Dossett and Kate Thompson is outstanding as Vashti, the tomboy from an adjoining ranch Bick might have married.
Numerous and varied stories and plotlines are introduced in Giant, including conflict between fathers and son, technological progress with oil vs. men of the land, and racial tensions like interracial marriage. All of these themes are timely and dramatic, but there is simply too much crammed into one show, and none of it adds up to an actual plot. This is a detriment to the cast, all of which are capable and some of which are outstanding. In Act Two, we meet Angel, a young Mexican man who grew up with the Benedict children, played with zest and relish by Miguel Cervantes. With Luz and Jordy Jr. he sings “Jump,” a standout song from the excellent score. But while the song is entertaining and the performance equally so, it has very little to do with the plot. We never know why we met Angel if only for such a short period of time.
The band for Giant is located above the stage, which is a fitting location for the performers of such a sweeping, elevated score. LaChuisa’s score is eclectic and culturally diverse, referencing everything from orchestrations that invoke Aaron Copeland to Mexican folk music. The lush orchestrations invoke visions of vast, open land and are nothing short of beautiful to hear.
Some aspects of Giant are clearly dated, including the gender roles and Texas manhood (I was disgusted when Bick said to Jordy Jr, “You never had what it takes to be my son”), while a few lines of the script rang too true, like when Bick’s uncle says, “Loyalty without question is about the dumbest thing a man could do.” And witnessing Leslie’s dissatisfaction with her marriage is uncomfortable to say the least, but Baldwin’s sympathetic and understated performance contains just the right amount of melancholy needed to do the topic justice.
While Giant is far too long and lacks far too much focus, the excellent cast and gorgeous score are both beautiful. The show could undoubtedly benefit from some trimming and restraint – perhaps like the actual state’s attitude towards the rest of the country as well.