By Lauren Yarger
A tip of the Stetson is due to the Public Theater and the new Michael John LaChiusa musical starring Brian D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin. It has been a while since we have enjoyed such a sweeping tale so neatly executed. It brings to mind the fabulous Orphan's Home Cycle by Horton Foote and War Horse up at Lincoln Center.
The staging, directed by Michael Grief, doesn't shy away from the fact that the epic 1956 film of cattle and oil in Texas (with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean to boot) is looming. Instead, the production team embraces it and gives an almost big-screen look to the set and lighting (Allen Moyer and Kenneth Posner, designers). The result is to create a larger-than-life feel to the production that doesn't compete with memory of the movie. It also effectively brings the vast landscape of Texas and the span of decades onto the small stage at Off-Broadway's Public Theater. Well done!
LaChiusa's score also is epic, echoing in the memory days after it is heard. The composer does an amazing job of capturing character and emotion with each tune playing an equal part in conveying Edna Ferber's sweeping tale of life in Southwestern Texas between 1925 and 1952 (Costume designer Jeff Mahshie helps take us on the journey with everything from cowhand garb to beautiful dresses worn by the women trying to find high couture in a dusty land). Choreography is by Alex Sanchez.
Some of Broadway's best are singing that score, too (Chris Fenwick is Music Director). The beautifully voiced Kate Baldwin is Leslie Lynnton Benedict, who gives up a life in high society to marry rough cow rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Brian d'Arcy James in one of his best roles yet) when he goes east to buy a horse from her family's upscale Virginia farm. Besides a sexual attraction (which actually is lukewarm between these performers), the two have little in common and find sudden marriage a bit of a struggle. First Leslie has to adapt to a different way of life on Reata Ranch. She is appalled at the prejudice against Mexicans and at the conditions in which ranch workers live. She also has to stand up to Bick's formidable sister, Luz (Michele Pawk), who runs things at the ranch with an iron hand and believes she knows what is best for the man she has raised from the time he was a small child.
She finds allies in other wives and surprisingly in Luz's original choice for Bick, Vashti Hake Snythe (Katie Thompson). A song later, where the women reflect on their lives and marriages is truly one of the most moving numbers ever to grace a stage,
Incapability between Bick and Leslie continues through the years, especially when it comes to their children, Jordy Jr (Bobby Steggert) and Little Luz (Mackenzie Mauzy). The meek and stuttering Jordy is a disappointment to his father. Like his mother, he loves reading books. He has no desire to take over the ranch and wants, instead, to be a doctor. He commits the unforgivable crime when he falls in love with Mexican Juana Guerra (Natalie Cortez). Tomboy Little Luz, on the other hand, loves the ranch, but doesn't have much chance of ever taking the reins because she is a girl.
When Bick looks at the horizon, he sees "genuine freedom." When Leslie looks, she sees emptiness. Their determination to hold things together despite the odds fuels the story (with a really good book here by Sybille Pearson).
Also turning in memorable performances are John Dossett as Bick's Uncle Bawley, PJ Griffith as the family's nemesis, Jett Rink, and Raua Aranas as the guitar-playing cowhand Polo Guerra, who taught all the boys how to rope and is like a member of the family (at least as far as racial bias will allow).
Giant has been extended through Dec. 16 at the Public Theater, 225 Lafayette St., NYC. The show runs three hours, with evening performances Tuesday through Sunday at 7. Matinees are Sunday at 1 pm. Tickets: http://www.publictheater.org/.
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