Composer Michael John LaChiusa’s epic new musical “Giant,” based on Edna Ferber’s sweeping novel about a Texas cattle ranch, bursts with passion and integrity in its Signature Theater debut. Unfortunately, it also smacks of excess, lumbering through three lengthy acts that at times beg for a no-nonsense cowpoke to cull the herd.
Winner of this year’s Tony Award for regional theater, Signature Theater commissioned the prolific LaChiusa to pen a musical of his own selection under a grant from the Shen Family Foundation. Undaunted by the challenge, he and book writer Sybille Pearson have embraced every principal element of Ferber’s expansive saga in a four-hour production that lingers most attentively on its powerful themes of egomania, prejudice and change.
LaChiusa’s inventive score is filled with pleasant melodies that hark to the old West, along with more soaring operatic pieces. In songs like “Heartbreak Country,” a rousing paean to the open prairie, the tuner’s rugged male characters sing about loyalty, revenge, coyotes, the unforgiving desert, the love of Texas and even old cars. For the women, there are songs about the future, fitting in, bad marriages and helping the needy. The gender divide is broken on occasion, such as with the delightful take-charge number, “No Time for Surprises.”
With a project of this scope — and at a somewhat early development stage for a major musical — there is naturally much to like and dislike. Pearson’s book, for example, focuses nicely on personalities and relationships as it spans 30 years of a tradition-bound autocracy called Reata Ranch. Its denizens pursue their respective ambitions with single-minded purpose.
Yet the show is humorless and sometimes incoherent. There are choppy, unconnected scenes, especially in the dark and leaden third act. Meanwhile, pivotal highlights such as a principal character’s life-changing oil gusher are presented in retrospect, robbing the story of needed spark and surely confusing anyone unfamiliar with the Ferber yarn.
The canvas for this undertaking is a mostly bare stage in Signature’s 299-seat Max Theater, where director Jonathan Butterell unveils the proceedings at a leisurely pace, inserting props as needed. An excellent 14-piece orchestra directed by Chris Fenwick is perched on a second level.
The bilingual cast is headed by Lewis Cleale as ranch boss Bick, Betsy Morgan as his bride Leslie, and Ashley Robinson as Jett, the ranch hand who strikes both oil and revenge. (In the 1956 film, the roles were played by Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, respectively.)
Cleale and Morgan are well cast as the tempestuous First Couple growing older together. Tall and handsome, he is every bit the headstrong Texan, with a booming baritone that handles LaChiusa’s varied assignments of swaggering bravado and tender love songs with ease. Morgan is delightfully spunky and unassuming as the transplanted Virginia belle who takes on the establishment. Her beautiful soprano sets the bar early in the number, “Lost.”
Robinson plays the cocky Jett at perpetual full throttle, whether he’s sweet-talking Leslie, battling Bick or disgracing himself at the big hotel bash. Among his musical high points are the sneering “Private Property” and the menacing “The Dog Is Gonna Bark.”
Other enjoyable performances include John Dossett’s assertive Uncle Bawley, who helps close act one with the lively “Coyote/Look Back/Look Ahead.” Judy Blazer as turf-conscious sister Luz and Katie Thompson as the jilted neighbor add depth and color to the production. Marisa Echeverria is an enchanting daughter-in-law, who helps introduce a new era of realism to the family. Her bright singing moments include the tender “There Is a Child.”
The show opens following a brief introduction to a lively barbeque being held in honor of the new bride fresh off the train. Tempers soon flare as Luz asserts authority, alpha dogs Bick and Jett bare their teeth, and the callous regard for Mexican laborers is revealed. The story weaves its way to a morally meaningful conclusion, with plenty of verbal fireworks en route, but surprisingly little dancing. “Oklahoma!” it ain’t.
Like a spicy Texas chili, this “Giant” is not for everyone. Along with its overly aggressive reach, there’s LaChiusa’s defiantly non-commercial style, which is something of an acquired taste. His score here is far more accessible than, say, his quirky “See What I Wanna See” currently playing at Signature’s sister theater. Yet it relies heavily on solos at the expense of more involving ensemble numbers one might expect to see in greater abundance here.
One thing’s for certain: after this lengthy trail ride, saddle-weary patrons will be looking for a friendly watering hole.