To make a musical of Giant, they had to cut it down to size. Another way of saying the same thing while keeping other Edna Ferber novels in mind is to mention that the John Michael LaChiusa-Sybille Pearson adaptation of the 1952 novel, directed with intensity by Michael Greif, isn't so big as its source material.
But hold on, hold on! Let's hope you've read this far and are disposed to accept there's too much worth recommending in the Public's Esther Newman production even to even consider dismissing it out-of-hand.
The bestselling work -- perhaps George Stevens's 1956 movie is better known -- has its own more than intermittent power. You might even see it as relevant to recent post-election headlines about the need for the nation's white-male population to wake up and smell the strongly brewing multi-racial coffee.
That's a forceful magnet as the subject matter follows the 1925-1952 triumphs and travails experienced by fixed-in-tradition Texas cattleman Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Brian d'Arcy James) and his Southern horse-country bride Leslie Lynn Benedict (Kate Baldwin).
Also exerting entrenched or liberating pulls along the circuitous way are Bick's hard-as-an-anvil sister Luz (Michele Pawk), Bick and Leslie's children, bookish Jordy Jr. (Bobby Steggert), and coltish Lil Luz (Mackenzie Mauzy). And, of course, there's malcontent cowhand and eventual oil-millionaire Jett Rink (PJ Griffith in the role that was James Dean's third and final screen appearance).
Since this is a tuner, the first nod for Giant achievement goes to LaChiusa, a font of flowing melodies that come close to bordering on opera. (They're much enhanced by orchestrator Bruce Coughlin with Larry Hochman, as well as conductor Chris Fenwick, who keeps the ample underscoring pungent).
LaChiusa is well-known for his aversion to the 32 bar ditty. He just won't commit it if he doesn't have to. Instead, he produces his own brand of ever-cresting waves of music. On it, his lyrics (several in Spanish) sometimes enter the ear more as Ferber's -- or someone's -- prose sitting astride nifty notes. At other times the word-music union is urgently fluid.
With Giant, it can seem as if LaChiusa's best output is in the second half, where in a Bick-Leslie desert scene when they examine their dulled alliance, the songwriter gets to deliver an aria for Bick that comes across as a 2012 answer to, and reversal of, the Oscar Hammerstein II-Richard Rodgers "Soliloquy" from Carousel.
By the way, during the act LaChiusa, perhaps just to prove he can do it, comes closest to a standard show-stopper "Jump," delivered expertly and expertly danced by Miguel Cervantes as the ambitious son of Mexican servants both nourished and deprived on the million Benedict acres.
(The acres are imagined by set designer Allen Moyer as infinite space only sometimes interrupted by the Southwest Texas Reata ranch water-tower and later by oil rigs. Jeff Mahshie does a fine job of imagining the fashions of four decades.)
Lending immeasurable help to LaChiusa is a 22-member troupe of outstanding singers. Led by d'Arcy James in top soliloquy mode out of his Shrek gear and the clarion Baldwin, there's not a weak voice in the pack. As well it should be since sooner or later just about every one of them gets a song -- or at the very least a solo -- of his or her own. That includes Pawk, Steggert, Katie Thompson as supposed-to-have-married-Bick Vashti Hake Snythe, John Dossett as gruffly level-headed Uncle "Bawley" Baldwin and Natalie Cortez as Jordy's cross-cultural bride Juana.
Where Giant lacks the punch Ferber packed into her pages and Stevens was able to insert into his Elizabeth-Taylor-Rock Hudson-starred celluloid frames is in the libretto. A certain amount of sympathy goes out to Pearson, who was saddled (Western-oriented pun intended) with the task of trimming the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ferber's (not for this, for the 1925 So Big) four hundred or so pages down to a manageable three-hour-plus-change stage time.
In try-outs (neither of which I saw) at Arlington's Signature and The Dallas Theater Center, Pearson reportedly distilled it to four hours or more, and now this further severe clipping. Though the action covered now can hardly be called a speed-through, it impresses not so much as a gallop across those wide open spaces as it does helicopter touch-downs from one signal episode to the next.
There's a suggestion of Leslie's being disturbed by her husband's accepting poor treatment of the Mexicans who live and work on the land. But there's little of the campaign she wages to improve conditions. There's brief talk and perhaps two run-ins between Bick and the rebellious Jett but little follow-through on the latter's obsession with the revenue-producing potential of the small property that mothering spinster Luz gave him.
Thinking about musical's creators thinking about bringing something like Giant into the theater, you can see the attraction. The adjective "larger-than-life" is often invoked while explaining when songs should come into play, and Ferber's Giant figures are certainly giant figures. On the other hand, while taming them as if they're wild stallions might be possible but what does it do to their natures and their situations?
Maybe here's the place to point out that a major theme of all Giant versions is love of the land. When Ferber penned her homage, she was joining a fine lineage that feature Emily Bronte for Wuthering Heights, Pearl Buck for The Good Earth and, more indigenously, Margaret Mitchell for Gone With the Wind. As for musicals, there had already been the Hammerstein-Rodgers Oklahoma! with its cowboy-farmer opposition foreshadowing Giant's cattleman-oilman face-off -- and, for forced abandonment of the land, Fiddler on the Roof (cf. "Anatevka").
More to the matter at hand, though, maybe here's the place to recall what happened when Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe and Moss Hart went about turning T. H. White's sprawling saga, The Once and Future King into Camelot. For sure, we still remember that score -- which gave us a favorite John F. Kennedy-related memory by way of the title tune. Maybe that reminder of good parts compensating for the less-than-successful whole -- along with a stageful of singers shining in individual scenes that catch fire -- will and should work for Giant. At the moment, it, sho' 'nuff looks like show enough.