BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Readers of Edna Ferber’s novel “Giant” or anyone familiar with the Rock Hudson-Elizabeth Taylor-James Dean film made from it will recognize the immense challenge of creating a musical out of this sprawling saga about three generations of a wealthy Texas family.
In their new musical “Giant,” currently at the Public Theater, writer Sybille Pearson and composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa deliver an earthy, at times stirring, impression of the epic that omits many incidents yet keeps its bones and musically conveys the themes that Ferber drew about race, privilege, offspring and Texas in general.
Leading a multitude of characters, Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin respectively portray Bick Benedict, the tradition-minded cattle baron, and Leslie, the genteel outsider from the East, whose unlikely marriage manages to endure in spite of different points of view and clashes over their children. A laidback PJ Griffith is Jett, the former ranch hand turned oil mogul, who threatens the couple’s fitful happiness.
A musical of serious purpose, “Giant” aims somewhat more for the head than the heart of audiences. Romance here is fleeting and Ferber’s satirical streaks are toned down, so LaChiusa’s complex score, while often handsome and robust, tends to be plaintive. Much of the dialogue is underscored. Wistful or dramatic songs that vividly express the characters’ states of being or their desires frequently appear.
Reflecting the region’s changing times, LaChiusa’s expansive musical palette enjoyably mixes American and Latino pop modes of the first half of the 20th century. Moonlight ballads and pioneer anthems give way to honky-tonk, Texas swing and post-war harmonies even as cattle ranching eventually bows to big oil interests. Rendered by a 17-member orchestra, the country-western flavors of the music sound tasty.
Michael Greif, the director, fluently stages the musical at a measured pace across the wide open spaces of designer Allen Moyer’s stark setting. Jeff Mahshie’s understated costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting denotes the passage of time.
Eloquent performances further help to bring the saga to life. James and Baldwin are touching in their loving attempts to bridge their differences. Michele Pawk formidably depicts Bick’s disapproving big sister, Luz, who later returns from the dead to haunt the story. A low-keyed John Dossett is charming as the folksy Uncle Bawley who reveals a sensitive side. As the wishy-washy Benedict son, Bobby Steggert contributes a clean-cut niceness, while Natalie Cortez displays a radiant voice as his Mexican wife. An especially lovely portrayal of Vashti, the Benedicts’ lovelorn neighbor, is contributed by Katie Thompson, whose strong, husky soulfulness suggests the spirit of Texas.