The first time I saw the movie “Giant” with Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor, I started to watch it over breakfast. By the time it was over I had finished lunch and was preparing for a 3 o’clock tea. It just never seemed to end. Notice I kept watching, but it was a real commitment. Flash forward a few years. Rock and James are dead, Elizabeth is no longer the svelte and beautiful ranchers wife, but Giant lives, this time as a musical.
If you have actually seen the movie, “Giant,” you have probably just shrieked, “Giant” a in song, how can that be?” And if you want to find out, you have to go to the imaginative Signature Theater, in Arlington Virginia, where they are courageous in their selection of plays and musicals.
“Giant” is a new musical by Tony award nominated Michael John LaChiusa, whose subject matter is often darker than you find in a traditional musical production. And while this production is not light hearted it is intriguing. It is however, not much shorter than the movie. And to be honest, 4 hours, unless the material is spectacular and absolutely compelling, is just too long. The story, which revolves around a Texas rancher (Bic) whose land is as important, if not more important than anything in his life – including his Virginia born wife, (Leslie) and the children (Jordy Jr. and Luz), who are a constant disappointment.
Let me say up front, I liked the idea and some of the music, and I did not leave. The staging for the production is, like Texas, very large. But the sets are minimal and I found them often unimaginative. The performance area is so large that it is set up for as many as three scenes at the same time. But because it is so big, unless you are sitting in the last row, you can’t see the whole stage when the actors are performing at opposite ends at the same time. In addition, and this is just my preference, if a show is going to be that large, I want the performances and staging to be of equal size. In other words, I’d like to see some real movement and dancing. Rather than sitting and talking – especially for four hours. If it moves to Broadway, Mr. LaChuisa will have to do some serious editing, but there is enough good material to work with and it will only get better.
The cast is enormous. Performances by Betsy Morgan, (Leslie, the lead and rancher’s wife), Raul Aranas, Marisa Echeverria, Michelle Rios, Mariand Torres, John Dossett, Lori Wilner, Judy Blazer and Martin Sola were admirable. In this show, unlike so many big musicals, there were no performers who were credited as ensemble – everyone had a name. I can remember the first time Jordan got a part where she had a name, and it was a big deal.
Katie Thompson, (Bic’s childhood sweetheart) ran away with the show. Her rich tones resonated for longer than her songs lasted and, as a woman who marries beneath her station, we were enthralled by her rejection and recovery. All the women players gave especially moving performances. My favorite scene was in the third act when the girl friends, Vashti, Leslie and Adarene sing “Midnight Blues”. It was one of the few real moments. The Hispanic actors also gave notable performances. “Giant” like West Side Story, is about intolerance and racial prejudice. And like “West Side Story”, there is a good amount of Spanish, substituted for English. It was easy to follow and absolutely fitting for those of us who are limited to one language (usually some form of English).
The two male leads gave the weakest of all the performances. Lewis Cleale, as Bic whose voice is beautiful, was stiff, appeared uncomfortable, performed without any passion, and sweat until it was a terrible distraction. His character was without redeeming quality and I just wondered why the lovely Leslie would stay with this schmo. Ashley Robinson (Jett, the lead antagonist) was like a cross between Joe Cocker and Eric Roberts. He was simply creepy. His motions were jerky and facial expressions far beyond suitable. It was impossible to understand why Leslie would be tempted by his attention. There was nothing sexy or enticing about his character. He was off-putting and repulsive (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).
Giant is a show with potential that needs some work on the book and the music. On the “What’s in it for me scale (with 1 being ‘nothing, don’t waste your time,’ ….2 being, ‘I was entertained but dinner would have been good too,’ and 3 being, ‘I was moved and enlightened and it changed my life,’ it is now a 2 but it does have potential to develop into a show that could be a 3. We’re just sayin’…. Iris