Giant, the new musical based on the Edna Ferber novel and now playing at the Public Theater, is a major achievement. No, it is not perfect, and it probably won't please everyone. There are no show-stopping production numbers that we are so used to in most musicals. However, I found its ambitious attempt to tell a sprawling, epic story -- one that encompasses two generations over twenty-five years and deals with themes ranging from family to racism to loving the Texas land to an evolving America -- to be wonderfully fulfilling.
Giant has a strong, dramatic book by Sybille Pearson, a superb cast, and a rich, melodic, surprisingly accessible score by Michael John LaChiusa that features a number of appropriate musical styles, including Mexican folk, rock, jazz, and country. It grabbed me from the opening moments and, while there were a couple minor bumps in the road, pretty much held my interest through the final, quite moving scenes.
I came into Giant with no specific expectations; I have never read the novel or seen the well-known movie. Simply put, Giant tells the story of a rich cattle rancher in Texas, Bick, and his new bride, Leslie, a socialite from the East Coast. Over the extended time period covered by Giant, we watch the couple deal with family issues, racism directed towards Mexicans in the community, and the rise of big oil in Texas. It is rare to find a musical with this kind of big story and scope, and I was so impressed with the skill with which the story is told.
The canvas of Giant is a big one. There are a lot of major characters, and some theatergoers may be put off when the focus shifts in Act Two to the second generation. And, with so many characters and such a wide-ranging story to tell, the creators had to make decisions and may have slightly sacrificed some character development, but that did not trouble me. All that said, the central characters from Act One never are lost, and the contrast in attitudes between the younger and older characters helps give Giant its epic feel. While the story takes us through 1952, its themes and its portrayal of an ever-changing America will resonate with today's audiences.
The outstanding cast is led by Brian D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin [both pictured], who give exceptional performances as the central couple, starting with their love-at-first-sight meeting in 1927 and continuing for twenty-five years. James, as always, sings and acts with passion and grand intensity; Baldwin is positively glowing as his bride, who finds herself out of place in Texas, but manages to manifest an inner strength that helps her survive and grow over the years. When the couple faces up to their issues in the penultimate scene (it feels like the final scene, and some audience members thought it was, but there is still one more -- also effective -- scene to follow), it is powerful and enormously touching. The rest of the cast is equally strong, with a mix of well-known performers such as Bobby Steggert, John Dossett, and Michelle Pawk, along with such relative newcomers as Katie Thompson, Natalie Cortez, PJ Griffith, and Mackenzie Mauzy, all making major contributions. Griffith has a difficult role as the ranch-hand-turned-oil-tycoon; he is somewhat of a villain, and his material is the most problematic, but he does a solid job with it. Rarely have I seen a musical in which so many different characters are given the chance to express themselves in a revealing, character-driven song. A few people may find that distracting, but it worked for me.
Michael Greif has directed Giant beautifully; scenes flow seamlessly, and there are some stunning stage pictures. Hopefully, the creators will continue to fine-tune Giant -- a little tweaking of a few scenes and characters might still help. Even as it stands now, Giant is an impressive and rewarding musical, telling a relevant story with great skill and compelling dramatic force. It is bold, intelligent, and melodic. The creators have made a decision how to tell their story and appropriately remained faithful to their vision of Giant, even if that flies in the face of traditional thinking about how to present a musical. As I have made clear, I am a big fan and advocate of Giant. It is a major musical theater work that I hope it will have a successful run at the Public and will be seen in New York and elsewhere again soon. - James Miller
The Public Theater is at 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan.
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.