By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Just in time for the secession!
Giant is a big, enjoyable, and moving musical based on Edna Ferber’s big novel (on which the 1956 big movie, with big stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, was also based). And although the cast is big and their voices are big, and they wear big hats and there’s a big orchestra onstage, this is not a Big Broadway Musical of the usual variety; it is plot and character driven, it has no big choreographed production numbers, very little comic relief, and no memorable stand-alone song. In other words, it’s a sung play, directed with a steady hand by Michael Greif.
With an interesting score and moody lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, the three-hour show offers many pleasures; perhaps the most surprising is that it lets us (for which read East Coast, contemporary, Public Theater-going types) in on the mystique of the land. The issues sound oddly current: oil, water, stewardship of the natural resources, and racism against Mexicans. The show gives us the struggles and triumphs of “heartbreak country,” a history lesson with rich resonance captured in the lovely, haunting song “Look Back, Look Ahead.”
The story is about a ranch named Riata – a two and a half million acre cattle ranch. The current Benedict to run the place is Bick (Brian D’Arcy James—it would be nice if he were physically bigger, but what can you do). On a trip to Virginia to buy a race horse, he falls in love with Leslie (Kate Baldwin), a lovely, pampered daughter of Southern aristocracy, and after a whirlwind courtship they marry and she spends the next twenty-nine years of her married life trying to figure out Texas and Riata and Bick.
There is, of course, a sexy snake in the grass, one Jett Rink (PJ Griffith) who will go from disgruntled ranch hand to fabulously rich oil baron, thus establishing the age old dispute between oil men and cattlemen.
There are some terrific minor characters; standouts are John Dossett as Uncle Bawley, Katie Thompson as Vashti and Michelle Pawk as Luz. The younger generation are disappointing—underwritten roles filled by charmless actors. There are a few odd gaps in the narrative, but the best scenes are not the predictable romantic duets (all the romance seems tepid), but the scenes written for women; especially good is “Midnight Blues.”
The drama here is not only about love and family and the sweep of time as people age and life puzzles and disappoints them, but it’s also about Texas and cowboys and bigotry and remembering the Alamo and guns and the frontier. It’s a very American show.
Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street, NY. Tickets $85-95. Through Dec.2.