The news out of Texas the night I saw the musical “Giant” was that a Texas school district had \canceled a play about two gay penguins; that a third George Bush – George P. Bush – was thinking about entering politics in Texas, and that more than 100,000 Texans had just signed an online petition asking President Obama to allow their state to secede from the United States.
The seeds of all these stories – even in a way the gay penguins! – are in the tale told in “Giant.” It is a giant of a show for the Public Theater – 26 performers singing 25 songs by Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party, Marie Christine, Queen of the Mist) over three hours about three decades in the life of a mismatched Texas couple – and their ranch, their family, their friends, their enemies. It is also clearly intended to make a statement — many statements — about the whole of the Lone Star State. So was the 1952 novel on which it was based by Edna Ferber, who was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, never lived in Texas, and never married. She did however have a knack for telling big stories that wound up as big musicals: She also wrote the novel “Show Boat.”
It’s not possible to view “Giant” the musical without thinking about “Giant” the 1956 movie, whose resonance transcends whatever qualities it has as cinematic art, thanks to its three stars. It was the last movie James Dean made — he died before it came out. Elizabeth Taylor, at age 24, is at the peak of her beauty. And then there’s the Texas he-man Rock Hudson, viewed now through another prism.
These three would overshadow the three principal actors of the new musical, no matter who they were. Brian d’Arcy James as Bick Benedict, the ranch owner, Kate Baldwin as Leslie the wife he marries while back East, and relative newcomer PJ Griffith as Jett Rink the ranch-hand who becomes an oilman are all splendid singers and actors. It is no comment on their talent to find that their story, which is almost but not quite a love triangle, is not what’s most compelling about this musical. This is also not the fault of Sybille Pearson’s libretto, which follows the movie fairly closely and the book even closer; almost all her changes are improvements.
But there is something too pat and too packed about the pile-up of themes and subplots. There is a subplot tackling prejudice against Mexican-Americans. Leslie is against it, which is nice. It is odd, though, that in Texas from 1925 to 1952, there is not a single black person, which is remarkably convenient.
What’s strongest about “Giant” the musical is not its sweep, not its stars, but its sidelights. There are small scenes that are breathtaking; minor characters who are inspiring.
An astonishing moment opens the show: Polo (Raul Aranas) appears with a guitar in a spotlight behind a scrim on the raised orchestra platform, as if he is floating in the vast blue and beautiful Texan horizon, singing “Aurelia Dolores,” a LaChiusa composition in Spanish that has the feel of a classic Mexican folk song. It is a perfect melding of music and design. Kenneth Posner’s lighting in particular is spectacular throughout.
Another strong moment, with a very different mood, is the lively boasting of “Jump,” a song sung by Miguel Cervantes as Angel Obregon Jr., the Mexican-American who grew up on the ranch and is now leaving to serve in World War II. He dances wonderfully while singing:
I want a zoot suit
Can’t wear no zoot suit here.
Go find a hot spot:
Get out of Benedict free and clear.
(Sal Mineo, noble and quiet, barely registers in the role in the movie.)
Then there is the funny and moving scene between Kate Baldwin and two other middle-aged wives, mothers (and grandmothers) played by Katie Thompson and Mary Bacon, complaining about their husbands and confiding in one another about their pains and sorrows, which includes the song “Midnight Blues.” Thompson plays Vashti, the next-door neighbor (in Southwest Texas that’s many miles away), disappointed in life and in love; most of the scenes in which she appears are highlights.
There are other such moments, mostly it seems in the second act. Other supporting players stand out, including the always adorable Bobby Steggert as Bick’s stuttering nerd of a son Jordan Jr., who finally finds his voice, and Natalie Cortez, the Mexican-American woman whom he marries, giving Leslie the opportunity to inveigh against prejudice.
That (in case you were wondering) is where the gay penguins come in – the schoolboard apparently felt that the story of two male penguins raising a chick promoted homosexuality. As for George P. Bush and the secession movement, Bick is in a long line of ranchers and wants the dynasty to continue, which is why he is angry at his son. Maybe Edna Ferber from Kalamazoo got some of Texas right.
At the Public Theater
Book by Sybille Pearson; music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Directed by Michael Greif; sets by Allen Moyer; costumes by Jeff Mahshie; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Brian Ronan; hair and wig design by David Brian Brown; orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman; music director, Chris Fenwick.
Cast: Enrique Acevedo (Miguel Obregon), Raul Aranas (Polo Guerra), Mary Bacon (Mrs. Lynnton/Adarene Morley), Kate Baldwin (Leslie Lynnton Benedict), Miguel Cervantes (Angel Obregon, Sr./Jr.), Natalie Cortez (Juana Guerra), Rocío Del Mar Vallés (Analita, Sr./Jr.), John Dossett (Uncle Bawley Benedict), Jon Fletcher (Bobby Dietz, Sr./Jr.), P J Griffith (Jett Rink), Michael Halling (Clay Sullivan/Lord Karfrey), Brian D’Arcy James (Bick Benedict), Mackenzie Mauzy (Lil Luz Benedict), Doreen Montalvo (Lupe), Michele Pawk (Luz Benedict), Allison Rogers (Heidi Mueller/Lady Karfrey), Isabel Santiago (Deluvina Obregon), Martín Solá (Dimodeo), Bobby Steggert (Jordy Benedict Jr.), Matthew Stocke (Mike McCormack), Katie Thompson (Vashti Hake Snythe) and William Youmans (Mott Snythe).
Running time: 3 hours, including a 15 minute intermission.
“Giant” is scheduled to run through December 5.