At the Public, a ‘Giant’ musical with great moments, but a lack of proportion

Mackenzie Mauzy, Isabel Santiago and Brian d'Arcy James. (Joan Marcus)
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For a musical with a title that practically guarantees a large-scale production, Giant starts out surprisingly small: one man alone onstage, accompanying himself on guitar.

The orchestra eventually joins him, adding tremulous strings and insistent brass, but it's those first few moments when Raul Aranas sings "Aurelia Dolores" that stick with you.

The music by Michael John LaChiusa, composer and lyricist for recent shows like Hello Again and Queen of the Mist, counts among his most ambitious. Along with Mexican folk songs, the score for Giant draws on other popular forms, including country western and bluegrass. And as the story moves from the 1920s to the 1940s, the score picks up traces of newer musical styles, including swing and even rock and roll. And it sounds ravishing, thanks to a lavish (by current live stage standards) 17-piece orchestra conducted by Chris Fenwick and orchestrations by the brilliant Bruce Coughlin, who also worked with LaChiusa on Broadway's The Wild Party.

But "Aurelia Dolores" also hints at one of the problems with Giant, a 2009 work that is just now finding its way to New York with a first-rate production at the Public Theater. Aranas plays Polo, a character with just a handful of lines. In adapting Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of Texas cattlemen and oil barons and their families, LaChiusa has given some of the best songs to minor characters, allowing the trio at the story's center—Texas cattle baron Bick Benedict (Brian d'Arcy James), his new bride Leslie (Kate Baldwin), and his roguish hired hand Jett (P.J. Griffith)—to fade into the background.

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There are a lot of minor characters in Ferber's novel, which was also the inspiration for the 1956 movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Playwright Sybille Pearson seems unwilling to part with any of them, so the musical meanders while it catches up with characters who should have made a brief appearance or perhaps been cut altogether.

Take Vashti, a rancher's daughter who has always carried a torch for Bick. When she learns he's been married, her bitterness over not being feminine enough boils over in "He Wanted a Girl." It's a highlight of the first act, and a song that will probably be popular with cabaret performers. As appealing as Katie Thompson is in the role, there's no compelling reason to keep tabs on Vashti after the applause for the number fades away.

And then there's Angel (Miguel Cervantes), who suddenly appears in the second act as a friend of Bick and Leslie's teenage son Jordy (Bobby Steggert). We don't know a thing about him, but soon he's singing not one, but two songs encouraging Jordy to kiss a pretty Mexican girl named Juana (Natalie Cortez). Cervantes is a pretty impressive hoofer, but his fancy footwork doesn't disguise the fact that Angel isn't a very compelling character. And neither is Juana, although Cortez sings her ballads with conviction.

One character who deserves more time onstage is Luz (Michele Pawk), Bick's older sister who takes an instant dislike to his new bride. Pawk is brilliantly brittle, summing up her character's suspicions in "No Time For Surprises." Ferber's soapy plot calls for Luz to die pretty early on, but LaChiusa smartly brings her back for a gorgeous duet with Bick that starts off the second act, "I Miss Our Mornings." Luz represents a traditional way of life being pushed aside by oil wells and get-rich-quick schemes, but Pawk never makes her feel like a symbol. I also liked John Dossett as Bick's Uncle Bawley, especially when he comforts his grieving nephew in "Look Back, Look Ahead."

I haven't said much about the leads, but rest assured that d'Arcy James and Baldwin are as appealing as always. Trouble is that the play loses track of them for much of the second act, so by the finale we've lost interest in their marital woes. I get that Pearson and LaChiusa are telling a generational tale, but Jordy and Lil Luz (Mackenzie Mauzy) aren't big enough characters to fill their parents' boots.

The most obvious hole in the show is where you find Griffith, playing the James Dean role. He wisely avoids that actor's mannerisms, but he can't quite find a way to convey the sense of danger that's so integral to Jett. He mostly seems like a nice guy—not exactly what you want from an antagonist.

With its lack of an orchestra pit, the stage at the Public isn't the most obvious place for a musical. But it works beautifully here, thanks to Allen Moyer's scenic design. He doesn't hide the orchestra—it's visible all the time, on a raised platform above the heads of the actors. A mostly empty stage emphasizes the wide-open prairie, until later in the second act when oil derricks begin to appear on the horizon. Kenneth Posner's subtle lighting makes the Texas sky sparkle.

The original production of Giant ran four hours—it's been trimmed by an hour and one entire act on its way to New York. Despite Michael Greif's deft direction, it still feels too long. Cut a few extraneous characters and focus a bit more on the leads and Giant might finally feel like the right size.

Giant is playing at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, through Dec. 16. Tickets are available at 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org.