First things first. Critics enjoy sharing opinions. Here is mine. A musical about Texas with few Texan singers in it? As the flagship professional theatre company in the North Texas region with a distinguished history, Dallas Theater Center prides itself for its acting ensemble, the Brierley Resident Acting Company. At least half of the actors engaged to perform in their shows should come from this distinguished ensemble, if not drawn from the N. Texas regional community of artists at large, or something is amiss. The same with designers. A show about Texas with no Texan designers? It’s an insult and disservice to our region’s artists and DTC’s commitment to support that region to mount a show of the scope, dimension and subject matter of Giant and exclude the Brierley Resident Acting Company and the region’s wide array of talented, skilled professionals. Many of them Texans. Yes, I know one actor in Giant graduated from Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School; another originally hails from Grapevine; an understudy teaches and performs in Fort Worth; and regional actor Chris Hury did the production’s fight choreography. Hardly qualifies as full regional representation. Co-production, as this presents itself to be, should mean just that. Giant is a lovely gift of an extended preview run from Dallas Theater Center to its partner, New York’s Public Theater.
Aside from that….
Sybille Pearson and Michael John LaChiusa have created the start of a fascinating, definitive work of musical theatre with Giant, honoring Edna Ferber’s signature novel, described as a “sensational story of power, love, cattle barons, and oil tycoons”. LaChiusa’ score reflects the style, scope and raw energy of the Texas plains and wildcatter lifestyle with gritty lyrical abandon while remaining decidedly contemporary in compositional style. Orchestrations, by Bruce Coughlin, are spot on tight and balanced. Musical director/conductor Chris Fenwick weaves magic with his splendid orchestra floating in surreal sprawl above the stage action, partly masked by a cloud-painted scrim. As for the book: so much of the novel’s detail gets jammed in with rapid transitions, the show becomes jerky, hard to follow. It presents (in two acts) about six hours’ worth of information in three hours and needs a firm edit to whittle it down to a manageable two hours’ worth of entertainment. Act I kicks in hard at first, then meanders around the back forty with a jumble of seventeen musical numbers. I became awfully aware of my “new and improved but still uncomfortable” Wyly Theatre seat, which means the stage action didn’t hold my attention. Intermission was pure relief for a numb backside. Act II, with more melodic tunes in ten coherent musical numbers, rounds up the strays and heads ‘em down the arroyo at a breezier trot. Yeehaw.
The set (designed by OBIE winning Allen Moyer) is a joy to behold, exquisite use of the Wyly Theatre space. The rustic, life-sized water tower dominating center stage right sets the rural tone and doubles as a balcony for courting scenes. Center stage left a broad staircase with Tara-like banisters heading up and off adds elegance to “indoors” scenes. Behind all scenic furnishings and props that float on and off stretches a non-ending prairie horizon beneath the cloud-painted scrim. Oil derricks appear as the play shifts focus from cattle to oil. Color floods the environment: natural, sunset-hued, sand-burnished, husky in shadow, relentlessly bright in mid-day heat, delectable (Kenneth Posner).
Women’s costumes and wigs reflect the mood and era well, with appropriate shades, textures, patterns and hem lengths (Jeff Mahshie, David Brian Brown). Men’s costumes fail to rise to the same accurate level of detail with a decidedly generic patina, period attire glossed over or totally ignored. (Brim roll and widths of men’s cowboy hats and their crown creasing, the styles of ties, bandanas and boots they wear, all seem remarkably “modern.” No bolo ties at all.) The same with props. What a lovely touch to have the ladies return from a shopping trip loaded down with Neiman Marcus shopping bags. Too bad the bags are emblazoned with the specialty store’s current logo, not the logo from the era represented. No dramaturg gets credited in the show program, and it shows.
Singing voices are exemplary, across the board, a fair feat with the challenging, semi-operatic score. Most memorable sung moments come from secondary characters: Miguel Cervantes as Angel Obregon in “Jump” and John Dossett as Uncle Bawley with a stirring “Look Back, Look Ahead”. Katie Thompson’s rendition of “He Wanted A Girl” as Vashti Hake takes Act I by storm, almost making its length forgivable. Why is a remarkable singer like Thompson accepting secondary musical theatre roles? Neither male lead, Aaron Lazar as Bick or P.J. Griffith as Jett inhabits his character, clothing or the setting with the rollicking agility and expansive ease of Texans. Far too easy to picture them with their gorgeous voices in other shows, other periods, where they truly fit.
This Giant may be more of a ungainly behemoth in its current state, but it shows real promise. Hopefully Dallas Theater Center’s extended preview run will provide the Public Theatre, Sybille Pearson and Michael John LaChiusa with all they need to mold it into a show fit for New York audiences and beyond.
Giant runs through February 19, 2012 at the Dee & Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas TX
Directed by Michael Greif
Photos by Karen Almond