Almost everything about Giant is huge. Set on a 2.5-million-acre Texas ranch, this is an Off Broadway musical of commanding scope and scale, with a 17-piece orchestra and a 22-actor cast. The story, adapted from Edna Ferber’s 400-page novel, stretches from the mid-1920s through the dawn of the Eisenhower era, and touches on major themes: sex, class, politics, greed, anti-Mexican bigotry, the changing role of women. And the Public Theater’s three-hour production, directed by Michael Greif, conveys a stately authority. Yet this epic saga rarely catches you up in its sweep.
Bick (Brian d’Arcy James) is a cattleman with an estate called Reata; Leslie (Kate Baldwin) is the genteel Virginia girl he marries, to the annoyance of his ornery sister (Michele Pawk). Bick cares about the land—which he calls “heartbreak country”—at least as much as he cares about Leslie, and the musical struggles to engage us in their chilly, stultified marriage. Supporting actors have forceful moments, including PJ Griffith as a snaky striver, John Dossett as a gruff uncle, and the superb Katie Thompson as a brokenhearted woman who rebounds with a ranch hand. But Sybille Pearson’s panoramic book too often seems out of focus.
Although Michael John LaChiusa’s fibrous score is typically complex and ambitious—with jarring tonal shifts and flecks of mariachi and jazz—it lacks the variety, humor and melodic expansiveness that lifted Giant’s clearest musical-theater precedent, 1928’s Show Boat. No matter how much he may love it, LaChiusa seems fundamentally mismatched with the material; he’s Leslie to Giant’s Bick. For the composer’s admirers, including me, that puts this commendable but attenuated musical somewhere in heartbreak country.—Adam Feldman