This has been anything but a red letter year for Broadway musicals, but Off-Broadway is a different matter. Last Spring there was the fascinating FEBRUARY HOUSE with an innovative, compelling score by Gabriel Kahane. Then DOGFIGHT at Second Stage. Now there is the ambitious GIANT at the Public with a lush score by Michael John LaChiusa. It's the best thing this composer has done.
Most of us know GIANT from the three-and-a-half hour film version with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. The film and musical are based on one of Edna Ferber's historical epic telling the story of a Texas ranch, its owner and his family over three decades. Like Ferber's SHOW BOAT, also turned into an epic musical, the politics of race are an important part of the story. Here is isn't Blacks, but Mexicans, from whom Texas was taken by force and who now have to fight for a place in Texas society. It's a big story, hard to encompass in a musical. In its first performances at the Dallas Theater Center, the show was even longer than the film version. When it opened in New York, it had been cut down to three-and-aquarter hours. Since then another fifteen minutes has been shaved off. Sybille Pearson's book still needs some trimming and continuity. Somewhere in the pruning, Jett Rink's character (the part played by James Dean in the movie) has lost its arc. It's no longer clear what his importance is to the domestic drama of ranch owner Bick Benedict and his aristocratic Virginian wife who never fully falls in love with Texas. More focus on the central characters and less on some peripheral characters would improve the show. Everyone I heard on the way out felt that the story ended five minutes before the show did. Nonetheless, GIANT is never less than absorbing.
It's greatest virtue is LaChiusa's score. I have often found him to be a frustrating composer who begins a song but never quite develops it. GIANT's score is rich, melodic, full voiced. It may be more conventional than some of his scores, but it is always masterful. He has found a style for each of the major characters. His lyrics never feel forced or artificial. The cast is full of good singers and the orchestrations (a seventeen piece orchestra -- real strings, no synthesizers. Yay again!). This is a show in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition and one of the best of its kind of show since the heyday of the legendary writing team. It's worthy of comparison to classics like SOUTH PACIFIC (which also has some book problems in the second act!).
The large cast filled with fine singing actors. I'm not sure Brian D'Arcy James is the best choice for Bick. He sings well, but just isn't physically right for the role (he's in heels, his wife is in flats). Aaron Lazar played it in Dallas and I'm sure sang it as well and is more of a romantic leading man. Kate Baldwin is excellent as his wife. PJ Griffith is the weakest singer in the cast and has to deal with a character that needs more development. Michael Greif has directed the show simply but effectively. The physical production is basic, but lovely.
I hope GIANT has a future beyond its short run at the Public. It's a rich, powerful, ambitious show with the best musical score since THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. And it looks gorgeous.
GIANT. The Public Theater. November 24, 2012.