Long before the nighttime drama of the Ewings on Dallas came the sprawling tale of the Texan Benedict clan in Edna Ferber's 1952 novel, Giant. The book, of course, went on to become a classic film, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Now, through the astonishing work of book writer Sybille Pearson and composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, Giant has returned to the popular consciousness – as a stirring, potentially landmark new musical at The Public Theater.
Superlatives and hyperbole are dangerous things in reviews, but for this three-hour saga that's set in a state where bigger is always considered better, they seem appropriate. They're also incredibly well-earned, particularly for LaChiusa, who has created a sweeping, soaring score that masterfully combines musical styles from nearly three decades with his own signature sounds. During the course of the show, he deploys jazz, blues, big band sounds, Latin music, and even classical strains with an unerring virtuosity, creating melodic lines that captivate.
At its core, the show is a bittersweet romance between Texas rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Brian d'Arcy James) and a blue-blooded Virginian, Leslie Lynnton (Kate Baldwin), who fall instantly in love when he ventures outside of his beloved home state to purchase a racehorse from her dad. The couple's whirlwind union, though, hits sour notes almost as soon as she arrives in Texas as his bride. Leslie soon realizes that she has married not only this bewitching man, but also his vast estate.
Two children arrive, as do complications. Bick steadfastly holds on to tradition, most notably resisting opportunities afforded by the emerging oil business, while Leslie attempts to move herself, the family, and the community around her forward.
Just as LaChiusa's music gives Giant undeniable grandeur, Pearson's book boasts incredible economy. The action is fleet, but nothing ever feels underdeveloped, even when the story moves away from the central couple to their teenage children and a larger world that's encroaching on their lives. Further, and without belaboring a point, Pearson's book lays bare the contemporary relevance of Ferber's story as it tackles small-minded racism and the dangers inherent in exploiting natural resources for a buck.
Director Michael Greif's contribution to the show cannot be underestimated. He keeps the story moving (quite literally, thanks to a turntable in Allen Moyer's almost letterbox scenic design) to near cinematic effect. Moreover, and in tandem with musical director Chris Fenwick, Greif has elicited performances that brim with affecting nuance, winning humor, and electrifying musicality.
Praise for the performers begins with d'Arcy James and Baldwin, who share an instantly combustible chemistry. He transforms from a brash and optimistic young man to a sullen and wounded man in middle age with gentle grace. And his rich baritone simply glides along LaChiusa's melodies.
Baldwin, breathtaking in a series of gorgeous period ensembles from costume designer Jeff Mashie and ever-changing hairdos that come from David Brian Brown, sings like a dream. Rarely has her upper register sounded more clarion-like, and once Leslie's disappointment in her marriage has reached its nadir, Baldwin sounds lower notes to heartbreaking effect.
Other turns to savor come from John Dossett, who nails a combination of cool crustiness and warm sagacity as Bick's uncle, Bawley; Katie Thompson, whose work as Vashti, the tomboy Bick might have married consistently induces smiles; and Michele Pawk, who finds the right level of sensitivity to bring to her portrayal of the frontierswoman-like Luz, Bick's older sister. And, as Jett, Griffiths gives a supremely appealing turn that's fueled with oily – dual pun fully intended – opportunism and resentment.
There's also fine work from the quartet of performers playing the generation that grows up under the eye of some of these adults: Bobby Steggert and Mackenzie Mauzy as Bick and Leslie's kids, Jordy Jr. and Lil' Luz; Miguel Cervantes as Angel, the young Mexican who has grown up alongside the Benedict children; and Natalie Cortez as Juana, the young woman with whom Bick's son falls in love.
With Giant, two natural comparisons to two unquestioned classic musicals come to mind: Oklahoma! which shares the show's southwestern milieu and Show Boat, which was also inspired by a Ferber novel. It's probably too early to place this new tuner squarely into this canon of seminal musicals. Nevertheless, mentioning all three in the same breath feels warranted and supremely natural.