There's an opportunity waiting for you, mythically in Texas and specifically in Dallas at the Wyly Theatre. It's Giant and it's giant. This coproduction between New York's Public Theater and the Dallas Theater Center sets out to stage the story that graced the screen and, for many, defined the state. Though the movie's shadow stretches from Marfa to the Metroplex, Michael John LaChiusa's music and lyrics along with Sybille Pearson's book stand tall. This is not the movie but it's just as big. Years in the making, this is the unveiling of the latest incarnation and you have the opportunity to say you saw it when.
Texas is the main character, mentioned 90 times in the script. Like some maniacal host of a dinner party turned murder mystery, the state is constantly though inconsistently described from beneficent and beloved to demanding and dangerous depending on the point the character wants to make. It's a combination oil-puddle cow-patty inkblot. Unfortunately, the exuberance our hometown has for its home is not equaled elsewhere and may spell trouble when it travels outside our borders.
The set designed by Allen Moyer is dominated by a toe-stubbing mistake of an image: a railroad water tower taking up a third of the stage. Though it rolls on and off, it remains omnipresent as a missed opportunity for metaphor. Windmills and oil derricks share similar form due to a similar function: to bring liquid from the land. Oil derrick silhouettes appear later in the play but achieve no resonance other than exuberant domination.
The rest of the set is a sky-floating orchestra hidden and revealed by a cloud-painted scrim and a grand staircase that rolls on opposite the water tower. Localities are suggested by furniture carried on or gently swung forward and back by a turntable. A set so sparse requires costumes to help us move us through time and place. From indoors to out, poverty to excess, across social divisions and occasions flashy to dour, costume designer Jeff Mahshie steps up to the task. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner deserves special recognition for being able to light characters under a floating orchestra.
The show opens with a simple song, "Aurelia Dolores," superbly sung by Raul Aranas. What begins as a serenade builds into a full company anthem. Director Michael Greif knows how to set you solidly in your seat. We are at the welcome home barbecue for a newly married couple. Ranch owner Bick Benedict (Aaron Lazar) has impetuously married Virginia native Leslie Lynnton (Kate Baldwin) and brought her to Texas.
For fans of the film, Lazar is not Rock Hudson and Baldwin is not Elizabeth Taylor. Surprisingly, it doesn't matter. In his first number, Lazar's rich voice conveys Benedict's strident love for his land. Baldwin's Leslie is more energetic than Taylor. Her playful infatuation develops into active fascination in her first number. It's as if these two knew that right at the start they'd have to win their role from the movie stars in the imagination of every audience member. The same cannot be said for PJ Griffith's Jett Rink.
James Dean's quirky performance as the black sheep ranch hand would have remained iconic regardless of his untimely death just weeks after shooting his scenes. Rink carries a grudge against Bick and a candle for Leslie the moment he meets her. He bucks authority and challenges his station as a lowly worker. With a swish in his anachronistic rock and roll swagger, Griffith creates a Rink devoid of the self-doubt Dean made famous. It seems he mistakes bad boy for boy band.
The story of Leslie's reception to Reatta, the Benedict's multi-million acre ranch, is one of ladies' reactions ranging from unabashed curiosity to heartbreak to rage. Some of the girls just want to see the stuff she brought from the East. Luz Benedict (Dee Hoty), however, runs the ranch with Bick and conveys her frustrations of plans plowed asunder powerfully in "No Time for Surprises." But the showstopper belongs to Katie Thompson as Vashti Hake in "He Wanted A Girl." Vashti was Bick's playmate growing up and it was assumed they'd marry one day. Upon seeing whom he chose, she movingly conveys the pain of comparison. It is a perfect storm of right song, right singer. Thompson's performance is worth the price of admission.
Along the same lines, Uncle Bawley (John Dossett) arrives on the scene after Luz loses her life, racing Rink on Leslie's horse. He has to convince Bick to give up his grief and move on. Dossett's "Look Back, Look Ahead" is as powerful as it is unapologetic. It comes just in time. As the beginnings of trouble in the Benedict relationship begin, the show begins to lose the audience's sympathy. Bawley sets Bick, Leslie and the audience straight. It's unfortunately short lived.
In a display verging on the vulgar, Rink becomes rich with oil. Then the Benedict's daughter Luz (Andrea Green) shares with him a head-scratching tune about poker that ends similarly messy. All the seeds of discord are sown. With oil all around, Bick is alone in his fight to keep drilling off Reatta. His son, Jordan (Matt Doyle) is more like Leslie in her love of learning and rejection of racism. As she grows more distant, she and Bick's relationship goes cold. The tail end of the act begins to resemble the tail ends of the audience in the Wyly's still-uncomfortable seats. It's a foot race to relief.
The second act wins the audience back with a sweet duet, "Our Mornings, That Thing," between Bick and the ghost of Luz. Considering our only glimpses of her from the first act were almost demonic, it is refreshing to see Hoty's softer side. However, high the expectations this opening creates, they are eclipsed by Miguel Cervantes as Angel Obregon in "Jump." Hanging out with his boyhood friend, Angel, Jordan is eyeing Juana (Natalie Cortez). Angel uses the metaphor of checkers to help Jordan who is paralyzed by the barrier their races present. Cervantes lights up the stage with his sly smile and smooth dance.
Before shipping out to the service Angel is married to Analita. Having caught the garter and bouquet, Jordan and Juana are about to kiss when Bick intervenes to Leslie's dismay. As if that weren't enough to snuff the happiness, Angel is immediately returned from the war in a coffin. It's a whiplash of romance and remorse.
Bick seeks solace in the solitary camp of Uncle Bawley. After laying out his frustrations with a son who would rather become a doctor than a rancher, Bawley tells the story of discovering his passion in life and then abandoning it. In "Place in the World," he argues for letting Jordan do what he wants. It's another pivotal moment for Bick delivered by Bawley, flawlessly by Dossett.
From here the show loses its path. There's a heartfelt scene of middle-aged regret between the women. But having abandoned the contrast between the rewards of hard work versus happenstance that the movie used so well, Rink's rant at the opening of his hotel signals a foreboding future instead a welcome fall. Between the women's surrender to an unfulfilled life and a scoundrel's unfettered rise, the promise of this land looks bleak. Into this void is a confrontation/reconciliation scene between Bick and Leslie that brings cold comfort to their fizzled romance. The best they can muster is an agreement to talk.
Having lost the flame, the flicker must be fanned by the last best hope for the future: Jordan and Juana, who is with child. Their duet on the unfortunate water tower isn't enough to brighten the end. Without the diner fight scene from the movie that signals Bick's evolution, this story lacks a character who undergoes a change. From such a strong beginning full of the promise, the show ends up as unyielding as the land it depicts.
Premieres are like frontiers in that they're full of uneven opportunity, rewarding hard work and happenstance haphazardly. Giant is full of beautifully composed and expertly performed songs. Some soar and some sour. Beef eaters know that lines of fat or "marbling" makes for more flavor in your steak. Meat and music are different in this respect. As the show goes onward the creators will have to choose what's great and what's gristle.
Don't miss out on the great. Just ignore the gristle.
◊ For part two of our take on Giant, Gregory Sullivan Isaacs reviews the music, here.
◊ And here's our Q&A with Michael John LaChiusa.