There are plenty of good reasons to see “Giant,” an epic new musical at New York’s Public Theater.
The redoubtable Brian d’Arcy James, Kate Baldwin and John Dossett lead a cast of 22 singing sumptuous melodies by Michael John LaChiusa. They’re backed by a 17-piece orchestra, a rare luxury for off-Broadway.
It’s based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel about a Texas ranching family grappling with conserving land and tradition amid an oil boom and social change. D’Arcy James is the reserved cattleman Bick Benedict and Baldwin his regal fish-out-of-water wife, in roles Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor made famous in the 1956 film.
As cowboys twirl ropes in the shadow of a water tower under a cloudy blue sky, a young Bick sings “Did Spring Come to Texas?” awaiting the arrival of his bride of 12 days. She quotes Emerson and he recognizes it, even though he dropped out of Harvard after two years to take over his sprawling family ranch.
But before fantasizing about “Giant” gushing onto Broadway and upending the season’s Tony Award derby -- as I did during those thrilling opening minutes -- be mindful of its excesses.
Although it’s an hour shorter than at its 2009 debut at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, LaChiusa and book writer Sybille Pearson still have an overstuffed, if compelling, narrative. Too many peripheral characters bog down the story with songs, maladies and, in the case of one young man, death.
Luz (Michele Pawk) comes off as strident and unsympathetic, which undermined her advocacy for old-fashioned ranch life to her brother Bick. PJ Griffith as the gaudy ranch-hand-turned-oil baron Jett Rink -- the James Dean role -- is a major talent but was light on sexual menace.
The show’s on firmest ground with the central couple. D’Arcy James is as convincing as a southwest Texan as he was a Brooklyn school teacher in television’s “Smash.” Bobby Steggert, still playing teens at 31, is likewise believable as the Benedicts’ rebellious, kind son.
Director Michael Greif deftly propels the three-hour show forward. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner conveys the stifling heat of the Reata ranch.
The show is the first of the Signature’s five-year-old “American Musical Voices Project” to play New York (following an interim stint at the Dallas Theatre Center). It would benefit from further cutting and shaping. Even so, the hours pass quickly and pleasingly.
Especially given Bruce Coughlin’s sublime orchestrations for the 25 songs, too much of a good thing is still pretty good.
At 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-967-7555 or http://www.publictheater.org. Rating: ***1/2
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(Philip Boroff is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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