“Giant,” the new Michael John LaChiusa musical at the Public, is indeed giant in scope, aspiration and accomplishment. This Texas-sized saga — based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 bestseller and the sprawling 1956 film version starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean — follows the life of a powerful rancher (Brian D’Arcy James) and his imported-from-Virginia wife (Kate Baldwin) over the course of 25 years. What could have been sprawling and unfocused has been rustled into manageable shape, with impressive performances from the two stars. While not yet quite ready for the presumably hoped-for jump uptown, this engrossing musical is already pretty swell.
LaChiusa has made a career of writing complex musicals that are sometimes hard to embrace, exemplified by his two Broadway offerings (“Marie Christine” and “The Wild Party” twin failures in the 1999-2000 season). With his 11th full-scale musical, he finally breaks through with a score that is tuneful, expansive and more emotional than intellectual. “Giant,” with its two dozen songs, seems inspired by Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” a comparison that reflects well on both sides.
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Of major help to the composer, who usually writes his own librettos, is the book by Sybille Pearson (“Baby”). She makes pretty good sense of Ferber’s novel, developing no fewer than 12 distinct characters and including several riveting scenes straight from the text. Director Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”) joined the show following its 2009 debut at Signature Stage in Arlington, where it clocked in at four hours, and he seems to have helped the authors put things in order; he keeps things in constant motion, interweaving the many songs and plotlines while conveying a continuous sense of the enormity of the show’s Texas setting.
James (“Next to Normal”) and Baldwin (“Finian’s Rainbow”) are equally strong as the rancher and his wife, acting their way through courtship, estrangement, pride and racial prejudice. Baldwin is a special joy, singing and acting in a manner reminiscent of Barbara Cook. Newcomer PJ Griffith impresses in the James Dean role, not something easy to pull off in this day and age; what’s more, he can sing. At present, though, the authors leave him stranded in his final scene, which might be true to Ferber but doesn’t work in the context of a musical.An almost unrecognizable Michelle Pawk commands the stage and the plot as the hero’s spinster aunt Luz, who loves the land more violently than the others do. She is countered by (real-life husband) John Dossett, with a lovely performance as the unfulfilled and sympathetic Uncle Bawley.
The central quintet is joined by an impressive group of actors who make distinct impressions in smaller roles, led by Bobby Steggert as the troubled son; Mackenzie Mauzy as the outgoing daughter; Natalie Cortez as the Mexican-American daughter-in-law; and Mary Bacon, with a dynamite speech as a Texas lady friend. Standing out is Katie Thompson as an ugly-duckling ranching heiress; she does a searing job on her first-act solo, and just as well on her second act number.
While by definition an off-Broadway show, “Giant” is already full-sized in cast (22), orchestra (16) and scenery. Allen Moyer’s set is dominated by a weather-beaten water tower on one side, a grand staircase on the other, a massive turntable that serves numerous purposes, and an upper-level bridge used by both actors and musicians. The bridge is often covered by a Cinerama-wide scrim, which allows Moyer, Greif and lighting designer Kenneth Posner to create breathtaking vistas and sunsets. Bruce Coughlin contributes an expert set of colorful orchestrations for Chris Fenwick’s band.
A musical of gigantic proportions, the show still calls for trimming, some minor character clarification and a stronger ending. Even so, LaChiusa’s “Giant” is something to see.