Theater Review: Peter Marks on 'Giant' at Signature Theatre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Giant" is two hours' worth of elegant song spread over four -- yes, four -- hours of rangy storytelling. At times, this sprawling new adaptation of Edna Ferber's 1952 Texas novel plays like a latter-day Rodgers and Hammerstein musical; at others, it looks and sounds more like a placid modern oratorio.

It's not all that surprising that a work of this size and scope and ambition would prove on its maiden outing to be in need of more focus -- and juice. The good news out of Signature Theatre is that the composer, Michael John LaChiusa, has written for this world premiere some of the lithest, most dramatically compelling music of his career. And that his collaborator, librettist Sybille Pearson, brings to the stage some potent Lone Star State characters, especially a petulantly predatory ranch hand, Jett Rink, played by the terrific Ashley Robinson.

Other of the portraits -- particularly that of John Dossett's big-as-all-outdoors Uncle Bawley, and Katie Thompson's spurned rancher-neighbor Vashti -- imbue the evening with the intensity of feeling it so passionately seeks to bottle. But the lack of effective plot compression tends to muffle the piece's power. A lot of precious time is eaten up in the first of the musical's three acts, for instance, in establishing the relationship between the story's central couple, headstrong Bick (Lewis Cleale), proprietor of the Reata Ranch, and Leslie (Betsy Morgan), his bookish bride from Virginia.

It certainly isn't that LaChiusa's lush ballads -- redolent at times of Mexico or jazz -- are inaccessible. With the aid of Bruce Coughlin's sterling orchestrations -- performed by a 15-member orchestra residing on a shelf above the stage -- the songs atmospherically enhance Signature's 276-seat space and seem to dangle just above us, like ripening fruit. Still, what LaChiusa and Pearson seem to have discounted is that time really is of the essence, and that a musical can only impart so much emotional information, so many character details.

We rely on the authors to tell us what needs to be told. It's almost as if we're being asked to serve as their editors: You can't help contemplating on this occasion what could be cut.

Whether this process sounds appealing will determine whether the 3 hours 55 minutes of "Giant" is worth your indulgence. At its epic length, it becomes an advanced-placement sort of musical -- more for the ardent enthusiast than the casual entertainment-seeker. (The idea is reinforced in director Jonathan Butterell's staging: Vocally refined but so visually wan, the show looks as if it were being presented in an imaginatively lighted rehearsal studio.)

Then again, audiences at Signature -- which is unveiling the show as the first of three new musicals in its American Musical Voices Project -- have been willing to go along to adventurous places with the contemporary musical. Their allegiance no doubt played a part in the company's earning this year's special Tony Award for excellence in regional theater -- only the second Washington area troupe to be so honored.

Because of its engaging musicality -- and its nerviness -- I did not squirm as much as I might have at "Giant." At moments, in fact, the show packs the desired theatrical punch, as when, at the start of Act 3, Angel (Andres Quintero), a son of Mexican American laborers, sings about his all-American dreams in the up-tempo "Jump." Or later in that act, when Thompson's Vashti boozily nurses the wounds of romantic disappointment in the plaintive "Midnight Blues." Or still later, when Robinson's reptilian Jett snarlingly delivers his embittered, redbaiting aria, "The Dog Is Gonna Bark."

Signature's "Giant," hewing closer to Ferber's novel than to the starry 1956 movie version with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, takes as its central idea the awakening consciousnesses of Bick and Leslie through 25 years of their marriage. Texas is evoked here in the late-middle decades of the 20th century as hidebound and dominated by the conservative cattle ranchers who, thanks to the discovery of oil on their properties, are striking it rich. (As Bick's older sister, Luz, the excellent Judy Blazer performs the essential service of embodying the crusty, homespun distrust of outsiders and their troublemaking ideas.)

In the starkness of the Signature production, you miss the arriviste opulence that Ferber makes fun of. And an effort to convey the greedy pursuit of oil that the pure-hearted Bick resists is a narrative thread in Act 2 that doesn't go anywhere. What you do get, however, is a good sense of the change that overtakes the ranch, as empathetic Leslie reaches out to the downtrodden Mexican American workers, and Bick comes to terms with the choices of his independent-minded son (Jordan Nichols), who against Bick's wishes leaves the ranch and chooses a Latina bride (the lovely Marisa Echeverria).

Cleale and Morgan have the most to do, and their voices are admirably up to the rigors of LaChiusa's songs, particularly in their galvanizing final duet, set somewhere in the Texas desert. (The third act is far and away the evening's most musically varied, and best.) But in spite of the intimations in the plot of other love stories set in the West -- you're reminded occasionally of "Oklahoma!" -- we're almost never allowed to get close enough to this Bick and Leslie.

Perhaps that's because they're drawn less tempestuously than many of the others who dart in and out of the tale. It isn't until two-thirds of the way into the long first act that a character and song pierce the curtain of handsome melody and locate a deeper chord. That moment belongs to the secondary character of Vashti, too, in her moving lament, "He Wanted a Girl."

The actresses who portray Leslie's lively Texas friends, including Lori Wilner as honest-spoken Adarene, actually feel a little underused. In a show of extravagant duration, this might sound like a contradictory observation. But in considering ways to subtract from "Giant," a little addition -- of spice -- may be in order, too.

Giant, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, book by Sybille Pearson, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Directed by Jonathan Butterell. Set, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Matt Rowe; choreography, Ernesto Alonso Palma; music direction, Chris Fenwick. With Raul Aranas, Jessica Grové, Michael Thomas Holmes, Michelle Rios, Martin Sola, Nick Spangler, Julie Tolivar, Paul A. Schaefer, Mariand Torres. About 3 hours 55 minutes. Through May 31 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit or call 703-573-7328.

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