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A CurtainUp Review
November 15, 2012 update: The Pulbic Theater and Dallas Theater Center Production Opened--Trimmed to 2 acts and 3 hours,
Review by Elyse Sommer
Texas isn't geography. It's history. It's a world in itself
.— Bick Benedict, to the sweet young thing from Virginia whom he marries and takes home to his 50-bedroom, 2.5 million acre Texas ranch.
The first impression Giant conveys is space. The musical version, created by Michael John LaChiusa, with book by Sybille Pearson, currently premiering at Signature Theatre just outside Washington, D.C., is set on a two-tiered oblong stage, with musicians above, actors below and a strip of light that changes color between the layers. Actors are lit from the ground up in such a way that the tableau vivant thus created sets a somber mood. Surprisingly, so does the music.
Lewis Cleale as Bick and Betsy Morgan as Leslie in the new musical Giant at Signature Theatre.
Not without its clichés, the musical — more accurately, popera— is highly entertaining, though repetitious. It currently runs, in three acts, a marathon-like 3 hours and 55 minutes. Two acts in 2 and a half hours would have been enough.
Like Edna Ferber's novel on which it is based, Giant spans three decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s. A Texas rancher, Bick Benedict, ably played and sung by Lewis Cleale, travels north to Virginia to buy a filly, falls in love and returns to Texas with both the horse and the seller's independent-minded, too-refined-for-Texas, but duty-abiding daughter, Leslie. Betsy Morgan handles the role with just the right amount of sweetness and good manners, but there is no doubt that this little lady is made of grit.
Bick and bride return to the land that he loves and raise cattle and kids. On arriving at the family ranch, Reata, (sounds like an abbreviation of real estate) with its 50-bedroom ranch house on 2.5 million acres, Bick's bride gets a less than warm reception from her jealous sister in law, Luz, sung by Judy Blazer whose strong presence and beautiful voice add greatly to Acts 1 and 2; also by Vashti, the down-home, fiddle playin' Texas gal Bick was supposed to marry. Katie Thompson's exquisite operatic voice brings tremendous depth of feeling to the role of Vashti, particularly in the very moving ballads about rejection, "He Wanted A Girl," in Act 1 and "Midnight Blues" in Act 3. (It won't be long before these numbers show up on cabaret playlists.) John Dossett's performance as Bawley, the uncle who may live like a hermit but is worldly wise, is also very strong.
Leslie tries to make a difference by challenging the state's bigotry and the bickering between her and Bick stems from her "liberal" ideas about integration — meaning her belief in treating the Mexicans of Texas with dignity, and the role a woman plays in her husband's life and work.
In Texas, so we are told, you have to watch out for rattlesnakes, personified here by Jett, the hard-scrabble kid who tinkers with cars in a show-stealing performance by Ashley Robinson. He's the seductive hard to resist bad-boy, who makes it to the pinnacle of oil-driven nouveau-riche Texas. He's lucky too in the lyrics he sings. His deliciously naughty double entendre ode to "Elsie Mae," a car or maybe a woman, "That gits your motor purrin'," is most welcome in this very earnest show. Robinson is a joy to watch.
Scenic designer Dane Laffrey, costume designer Susan Hilferty andlighting designer Japhy Weideman are to be commended for the moods they create with a simple set of almost mono-chromatic sage-brush colored costumes and lighting that is exceptionally effective.
Book writer Sybille Pearson overloads the 3 hour and 55 minute musical (audiences could be forgiven for complaining of saddle sores) with too many subplots about Texas and Mexican/Texas history, remember the Alamo, women's lib or rather the lack thereof, generational conflict, breast cancer, and on and on and on. It's like a stew with too many ingredients, no matter how enjoyable Michael John La Chiusa's music and lyrics are. Far more successful than La Chiusa's See What I Wanna See (review of NY production), running concurrently at Signature Theatre, Giant could some day make it big. Meanwhile, there is just too much of it.
Patrons have come to expect from Signature Theatre, over the last twenty years, a taste for the new and risky, excellent production values and (with only a few exceptions) voices and performances that are of only the highest caliber. The theatre will be the awarded the 2009 Regional Theatre Tony Award, June 7, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Book by Sybille Pearson, based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed byJonathan Butterell
CAST: Enrique Acevedo (Miguel ), Raul Aranas (Polo), Judy Blazer (Luz), Lewis Cleale (Bick), John Dossett (Bawley), Marisa Echeverría (Juana), Jessica Grové (Heidi/Lil' Luz), Thomas Holmes (Michael ), Betsy Morgan (Pinky), J Jordan Nichols (ordy, Jr.), Andres Quintero (Angel, Sr. and Jr.), Michelle Rios (Lupe),
Ashley Robinson (Jett), Isabel Santiago (Petra), Paul A. Schaefer (Mike), Martín Solá (Dimodeo),
Nick Spangler (Bob, Sr. and Jr./Lord Karfrey), Katie Thompson (Vashti), Julie Tolivar (Lady Karfrey), Mariand Torres (Analita), Lori Wilner (Adarene)
Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; additional orchestrations by Larry Hochman
Production Stage Manager: Julie Meyer
Choreographed by Ernesto Alonso Palma
Music Direction by Chris Fenwick
Running time: 3 jpirs and 55 minutes with 2 intermissions
Signature Theatre, in association with The Shen Family Foundation, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit http://www.signature-theatre.org.
From 4/28/09 to 5/32/09; opening 5/12/09
Reviewed by Susan Davidson May 10, 2009
- Aurelia Dolores/
Polo and Company
Did Spring Come to Texas?/
Bick, Pinky, Men
Lost in Her Woods/
Leslie, Bick, Company
No Time for Surprises/
He Wanted a Girl/
Ruega por Nosotros/
Lupe, Petra, Carmen
Coyote-Look Back-Look Ahead
Bawley, Leslie, Bick, Company
Our Mornings-That Thing/
When to Bluff-One Day/
Jett, Lil Luz, Men
Pinky, Vashti, Bick, Leslie, Company
Act Two Finale/Bawley, Bick, Company
Angel Jr., Lil Luz, Bobby Jr.
There is a Child/
Un Béso, Béso!/
Lupe, Angel Jr., Analita, Company
A Place in the World-Look Ahead Reprise/
Vashti, Leslie, Adarene
The Dog is Gonna Bark/
Aurelia Dolores Reprise/
Jordy Jr., Juana, Company
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