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Tyne Daly: Songs

Giant

Michael John LaChiusa's sparkling score and strong performances by a 21-member cast outshine the weaknesses in this four-hour musical version of Edna Ferber's novel.

By Washington, DC
Betsy Morgan and Lewis Cleale in Giant
(© Scott Suchman)
Betsy Morgan and Lewis Cleale in Giant
(© Scott Suchman)
If you can't tell a story in four hours onstage, maybe it's time to reconsider how you approach your source material. On the other hand, when you have a sparkling new score from Michael John LaChiusa, you may wish for the experience to go on forever. That's the conundrum with Signature Theatre's world premiere production of Giant, adapted from Edna Ferber's novel about powerful Texas ranchers in the mid-20th century, in which the pluses ultimately outweigh the minuses.

Without question, Ferber's sweeping novel encompasses too much in the way of plot and theme to boil it all down for the stage in one sitting -- as it spans almost three decades and explores such myriad themes as love, family bonds, racism, greed, our relationship to the land, tolerance, and even the roots of modern Texas culture and politics. Sybille Pearson's libretto is in need of shrewd editing in order to concentrate on fewer themes and get the important plot lines into clearer focus. As it is now, the story often lurches forward and then stops, and too many characters are barely sketched in.

Act I strongly features southwestern themes in both music and story as Leslie (Betsy Morgan), a young Virginian socialite, moves to Texas in the 1920s with her new rancher husband, Bick (Lewis Cleale). She becomes immersed in the Mexican-dominated local culture and fights for her independence against Bick's domineering older sister, Luz (Judy Blazer). In Act II, it's 1941 and the focus shifts to the use of political power by the powerful ranchers, while Act III brings us to a larger examination of greed and the corrupting influence of oil.

Cutting the show, however, would also necessitate paring back LaChiusa's often glorious score, with its operatic range of sumptuous ballads, mariachi numbers, country-themed motifs, fox trots, Glenn Millerish swing tunes, and contemporary musical theater arias (all beautifully orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin and played by a 15-member ensemble).

For better and worse, director Jonathan Butterell has concentrated his energies on pulling depth from the cast rather than sensational staging. Cleale, as the tradition-bound Bick, and Morgan, as headstrong but sensitive Leslie, give particularly strong performances, while Blazer is a formidable presence as Luz (even when she strains with some of LaChuisa's more extravagant vocal passages).

Ashley Robinson makes an indelible impression as Jett, the casually insolent farmhand who rises to oil tycoon, and John Dossett offers a layered performance as Bawley, Bick's insightful cowboy uncle. Many others in the cast of 21 shine with solo moments, including Andres Quintero as a young Mexican-American ranch-hand who has plans for a better life and Marisa Escheverría as a Mexican girl who marries Bick and Leslie's son.

The production's look, however, is oddly dark, grim, and stark. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey has the tale unfolding in a mostly barren space anchored by a platform accessible only by a (rarely used) ladder, which is in sharp contrast to the sunny locale and colorful Mexican motifs traditionally associated with the American southwest. One cannot be sure if this was an artistic choice or an economic one, but a scenic design that is both simple and colorful might be a better choice.


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