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Theater Review: The Dallas Theater Center’s Giant Disappointment

Despite Texas-sized ambition, The Dallas Theater Center's new musical, a co-production with New York's Public Theater, reminds us that bigger isn't always better.
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With Giant, composer Michael John LaChiusa pays homage to our great state, the glory days of cattle, and the false promise of big oil. The musical is ambitious and long, densely packed with historical explanation and no small amount of pride. The same cliché that’s true for Texas holds some merit here as well: bigger does not always mean better. And occasionally our size and pride together acts like a security blanket, concealing the fear that we’re all just a bunch of rather ordinary Americans, same as the rest.

LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson, who wrote the book, rightly force us to think about that. There are moments and songs that shine brightly, but for all the musical’s attempts to capture the state’s sprawling spirit and contentious history, the plot is distilled to oversimplified bullet points hardly befitting the source material. Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel is a massive thing, and Giant, the 1956 film adaptation, starred such incomparably attractive actors that their combined talents proved box office magic. What plays out on stage follows Ferber’s book rather than the movie, with some dialogue lifted straight.

The challenge then is to take a place and a narrative that we all purport to know so well and make them both fresh. We want to see our secrets laid bare, for the story of others to tell us something about ourselves that we didn’t already know. But as lush and lovely as the score is (and as gorgeous and smartly staged as the musical is as a whole), the writers seem content to let us languish in the shallow end of the world rather than tapping for the rich black gold down below.

We get a lot of dry facts, such as the history of Texas under the six flags, but the human heart beat is sluggish, buried under a desire for importance that the sheer size and quality of the production imparts but the characters don’t necessarily deserve. Many of them emerge as exceedingly well-dressed cardboard cut outs in a life-sized Western diorama. They sing pretty, and they talk Texan. But they don’t do much else.

The vast backdrop— a wide, beautiful replica of the Texas sky that moves up and down and changes color at the drop of a ten-gallon hat— is stunning (lighting is by Kenneth Posner and the set by Allen Moyer, both excellently done) . The strum of the Spanish guitar for the prelude invokes everything it should— tradition and long, hot days. But as nicely as it starts, the big opening number, “Did Spring Come to Texas,” is unmemorable. We’re at a backyard barbecue, and despite the massive water tower, it could have been anywhere. But this is Reata, home of the newly married cattleman Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict (Aaron Lazar). He went to Virginia to buy a racehorse and came back married to an opinionated bookworm named Leslie (Kate Baldwin) who’d never set foot in Texas her whole life.

Bick’s unmarried older sister, Luz (Dee Hoty), who helps Bick run the ranch, doesn’t take kindly to this interloper. Jett Rink (PJ Griffith), the sleazy ranch mechanic, sulks on the fringes of the party and develops a tepid attraction to Leslie. Later, his rags-to-riches side plot will be woefully underdramatized and underused as we follow the Benedict family, their friends, and the families of their Hispanic ranch hands into a rapidly changing world.

But before we get that far, we bounce back in time a bit to the first meeting between Bick and Leslie, where we quickly learn that Lazar and Baldwin have all the chemistry of two turnips. Their banter falls flat after the Texas stereotypes are played out, and the romance that should be the backbone of the story withers. The actors who play their teenage children, Lil’ Luz Benedict (Andrea Lynn Green) and Jordy, as well as those who play the children of the Mexicans who work the ranch, bring the musical back to life.

The trouble stems from the very first lackluster song, with Bick himself. He’s king of Reata, a supposed force of nature. Instead, Lazar is slim and short, physically overshadowed on stage. He lacks the simmering volatility that makes the character in the book both revered and feared. He isn’t vocally outmatched, but never seems quite at home in his cowboy boots.

Consequently, the love he professes to feel for the land doesn’t ring true, and the arc of his character is oddly relegated to the sidelines. Instead of coming to his own revelations, the path he must take to navigate his increasingly uncertain future is told to him by a variety of characters, most bewilderingly by the “ghost” of his sister Luz after her tragic demise early in the first act. The problem with this poltergeist is that the reason for her reappearance never pays off— I kept expecting Bick to ask her to leave, as perhaps a way of dramatizing his choice of a life that includes a Hispanic grandchild over the old way of doing things. But he never does.

It is the more minor characters, and the young actors, who delight, perhaps because they are given the luxury of palpable— and singable— emotion. Katie Thompson, who plays Vashti, Bick’s jilted would-be bride, delivers a powerful yet pragmatic song about unrequited love with an absolute powerhouse voice. Miguel Cervantes, who plays the young Angel Obregón, and Natalie Cortez, who plays Bick’s son Jordy’s Hispanic wife, Juana, have two of the most memorable numbers. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious, and touching, because they are two for whom life in Texas is least charmed.

This new musical has so much going for it— an impressive pedigree, what with The Public Theater’s involvement and Tony-winning director Michael Greif at the helm, plus support from a company that loves it, flaws and all. Composer LaChiusa is a Broadway veteran, though he’s hardly had a runaway commercial hit. His scores are exercises in obsession that leave little room for compromise.

It’s natural, then, that he gravitates towards projects and characters that mirror the way he treats his task. Giant is driven by a singular love— Bick Benedict’s love for Reata, his country. But as we wind our way through the generations, the tale unravels under the burden of its ambition and becomes just another story about a privileged white family that’s had to adjust to a slightly more colorful—yet no less monied— life.

Some parts feel outdated, even in spite of conscious attempts to update it with allusions to the Iraq war. The particular generational, gender, and racial tensions that distinguish our state are touched upon but little explored, while all the easily recognizable stereotypes are trotted out for laughs. Bigger isn’t better here, if only because the bulk of the effort is devoted to propping up hollow characters who are less than larger than life. To admit to the sheer tedium of the task might just mean admitting that perhaps we’re not so different from the rest of the states.

Giant, then, for all its size and bluster, becomes a lit fuse that never finds the powder keg, an extraordinary undertaking that tries and ultimately fails to produce evidence of a truly extraordinary Texas. Will Broadway audiences care? The better question is, should they?

Photo by Karen Almond