GIANTA new musical based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Book by Sybille Pearson? Music & Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
A co-production with The Public Theater
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Alex Sanchez
Musical Direction by Chris Fenwick
Scenic Design by Allen Moyer
Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie
Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner
Sound Design by Brian Ronan
CAST (In order of appearance):
Polo and others: Raul Aranas
Jordan "Bick" Benedict: Aaron Lazar
Mott "Pinkie" Snythe and others: William Youmans
Bobby Dietz, Jr & Sr. and others: Jason Hite
Mike and others: Matthew Stocke
Leslie Lynnton Benedict: Kate Baldwin
Adarene, Mrs. Lynnton, and others: Mary Bacon
Luz Benedict: Dee Hoty
Jett Rink: PJ Griffith
Petra, Mrs. Obregon, and others: Isabel Santiago
Vashti Hake Sntyhe and others: Katie Thompson
Heidi, Lady Karfrey and others: Allison Rogers
Angel Obregon, Jr & Sr. and others: Miguel Cervantes
Miguel Obregon and others: Enrique Acevedo
Lupe and others: Doreen Montalvo
Analita and others: Rocio Del Mar Valles
Uncle Bawley Benedict: John Dossett
Lord Karfrey and others: Michael Halling
Lil' Luz Benedict and others: Andrea Green
Jordy Benedict, Jr. and others: Matt Doyle
Dimodeo and others: Martin Sola
Juana Guerra Benedict and others: Natalie Cortez
Reviewed Performance: 2/1/2012
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In fact I was the ONLY theater critic who wrote that New York producers need to come to Dallas to see this musical and take it to Broadway because it was that damn good! Fast forward to December 2011 and sure enough, Give It Up debuts on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre with the new title Lysistrata Jones. The musical received rave reviews from the New York critics including The New York Times' Ben Brantley. Even with an armful of great reviews it struggled at the box office, tragically closing just last month.
Now DTC has once again mounted a regional premiere musical, Giant, based on Director George Stevens' 1956 film starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. The musical premiered in 2009 at the Signature Theatre, where it clocked in at a marathon four hours. After several readings, workshops, endless rewrites and retooling, it has come to Dallas.
But this wasn't the first stage production that used Giant as subject matter. There is the 1976 play, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean by Ed Graczyk. The play centers around a group of women, and one male, who created The James Dean Fan Club, including a member who claims to have slept with Dean while he was filming Giant. Their town was close to Marfa where Giant was filmed, so they saw the stars and tried to get cast as extras.
The film Giant earned nine Academy Award nominations, including acting nods for Hudson and Dean, but only won one - Best Director for Stevens. Alas Taylor was not nominated.
For movie history buffs such as myself, Giant has loads of delicious stories, gossip, and history on what occurred behind the cameras. Hudson back then was the gorgeous, leading man. Tall, handsome, masculine, and gay. His fame and fans meant everything to him, no matter the cost to his personal life. So he was not just in a closet, but in a closet made of cement. In Taylor he found a confidante and a best friend. She was one of the very few stars who knew he was gay, and didn't care. Hudson almost did not get the role in Giant. Stevens wanted William Holden but his wife told him to go with Hudson. Because of the tight bond of friendship between Taylor and Hudson, Taylor took Hudson's death from AIDS very hard. And because of his death, she became the first major star to use her fame to fight AIDS and create a charity to help those with AIDS, the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation.
Giant would mark Dean's final film as he was killed in a horrific car crash, which was ironic as his character in the film also had a love for fast cars. Because of his untimely death, Stevens had another actor, Nick Adams, dub half of Dean's dialogue. If you listen to the film you can clearly hear the changes in voice throughout Dean's performance. Dean was the first rebel, the method actor destined to have a great film career, but alas it was not to be.
Full disclosure here: I am a theater critic, but also a professional actor. I had the esteemed honor to originate the role of "Phil D'Armano" in the regional premiere of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party at Theatre Three. LaChiusa even flew to Dallas to see the show and held a Q&A with the audience and the cast.
I observed the 2000 original Broadway production starring Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt. LaChiusa's music was one of the most intricate, complex scores that I had ever heard. The score was a cornucopia of syncopated jazz with tight harmonies. Some numbers had four to five variations of music and harmonies all sung at the same time. But I loved that score to the very last note. As a performer, and as an audience member at the Broadway version, I savored each song. It was a bold, new, unique, and labyrinthine score. Now he has composed the score to Giant.
So was Giant another hit for the Dallas Theater Center?
Sybille Pearson's book fit like a glove within LaChiusa's score. It was refreshing to have a book that doesn't have that aura of, "scene, song, next scene, song" format. It never felt as though the book was crawling towards the next song or giving the audience the obvious thump over the head with, "Here comes the next number folks!" Pearson simply allowed the story to unfold where, magically, the musical numbers sprang forth from out of the air. She did not disappoint fans of the film either. So many musicals in recent memory that used a film as its subject matter failed to create a solid book. For instance, I wondered how the book writer would re-create the famous oil gush scene with Dean. Pearson and LaChiusa succeeded with glowing success in both song and book. The book was not clunky or choppy when it came to transitions. There were so many scenes, and yet the book glided effortlessly from scene to scene without a misstep.
What I truly found fascinating and intriguing was how Pearson, along with Director Michael Greif & LaChiusa, brought to the forefront the racism and the false history that Texans created regarding the Mexican culture. The film skimmed around this while the musical confronted it head on, with glaring truth both in song and book.
The only flaw in the book was the relationship between Bick and his son Jordy. Nowhere in the book or music was there a reference or explanation of Jordy's speech impediment. Did he get that because of his tense and distant relationship with his father? That plot line was so important to the story, and I felt it could have been exposed and explored more. Even with that flaw, the book was bountiful and served as a sturdy ground for the music.
When it was announced that DTC was doing Giant, my first reaction was, "Ugh. That means a country & western twang score". I had to eat major crow on that assumption. LaChiusa's score was practically devoid of that genre of music. Instead, he composed a sumptuous, mouth watering score that sounded exquisite on stage. He paid great respect to the Mexican culture by composing several original Mexican hymns and Mariachi music. LaChiusa used the timeline of the story and reflected it in his compositions. It started off with classic Broadway melodies but then transformed into more complex, lush music. There was even some 50's rock and jazz interwoven in the score. LaChiusa composed robust company numbers - rich, detailed solos that expanded the character's inner thoughts and emotions - to several duets and trios that became major highlights of the evening. There were many songs where I just sat back and enjoyed every single measure of them, in particular the solos for Bick, Leslie, Vashti, Juana, and Jett.
LaChiusa's lyrics were perfection in regards to character subtext, development, and plot. He did not attempt what so many of today's composers try to be-Sondheim. LaChiusa is his own voice, his own music, his own lyrics. The lyrics delved deep inside each character to expose their organic pain, conflict, love, and truth. The lyrics provided so much for the audience to discover what was encased in those characters' hearts, minds, and souls. Major kudos to him for also writing several numbers all in Spanish. It displayed great respect to the Mexican culture.
The music for this score, which was played by a fantastic live orchestra placed above the stage, was so fresh, riveting, and distinctive from other musical scores. It was one of LaChiusa's finest scores he has ever put down on sheet music.
The only misstep with the score was the same flaw with the book, that of Jordy and Bick's difficult relationship. That was such an integral subplot within the story, a son not wanting to follow in the family business, to marry outside his race. That tension and conflict screamed for a duet between Bick and Jordy. They so badly needed a song to lash out at each other emotionally with music. But that was the only error found in LaChiusa's powerful score.
Michael Greif directed what I consider the best rock opera ever put on Broadway, Rent, which I saw the 1996 Broadway production with the entire original cast. No other musical shattered me emotionally like that one. Greif was robbed of winning the Tony Award for directing Rent. He also helmed two other Broadway hits, Next To Normal, and Grey Gardens (which I also saw on Broadway). Then he came to Dallas to put Giant on its feet. Greif's direction was spotless and magnificent. The staging never looked basic or lacked purpose and reason. He clearly knew how to create visual emotional moments throughout the evening with his blocking.
Greif was keenly aware that many in the audience had seen the film. How to do you get around Hudson, Taylor, and Dean? How do you take that sweeping epic and turn it into a musical? He masterfully succeeded in every way. He kept the action and storyline moving along with his staging. What he brought out of his actors was nothing short of pure artistic beauty. They avoided imitating the film stars but instead created their own visions of these characters. Greif directed them to be authentic, flesh and blood human beings with flaws, and got his cast to reveal it all within their performances.
As a Latino myself, I think it was intelligent casting actual Latinos in the roles. It gave the racism such graphic honesty you could sense several audience members squirm. Could it be that Greif and his cast were holding a mirror to this Texas audience? Because of the book, score, lyrics, and direction, it spoke real truth in regards to the Texas/Mexican war and the racism that still exists today. It's this kind of theater that I so much hunger for. Where it reaches deep into the audience and makes them wake up and look at themselves. Greif achieved that here.
One other flaw in this production was the stage fights. I've seen productions where the stage combat or fighting is graphically real and jarring. But here it was staged way too soft and fake. Jett and Bick's fight lacked the jealous rage and hatred these men had for each other. For safety purposes it was too choreographed, and lost its realism altogether. In the second act, when Jordy was attacked, it again came off soft and false. Those fight scenes needed to be either restaged to show machismo intensity and realism or have them cut out.
Part of Greif's success went to Scenic Designer Allen Moyer. He created a massive turntable (a la Les Miserables), scrims, and curtains to keep the many scenes ebbing effortlessly throughout the evening. Set pieces were placed on the turntable, upstage behind the scrim and curtain, and then the turntable moved to go into the next scene. There was a gorgeous staircase used for the Benedict mansion in several scenes. One design element that I really loved was the miniature set pieces such as a water tower, the Bick Mansion, oil wells, etc. placed way upstage. These miniatures gave the stage great depth and visual perspective for the audience.
Kenneth Posner's lighting design immersed the stage so you actually felt you were under the sizzling hot Texas sun, with his blinding rays of gold and yellow. Be sure to watch the back wall for all those magnificent sunsets, sun rises, and skylines for various scenes. During various numbers the sky & clouds shifted shape and color to reflect the emotion of the music, lyrics, and acting. As in the duet "One Mornings/That Thing" that opened Act Two. As the song progressed, the sunrise behind them glowed into rich colors.
The costumes by Jeff Mahshie captured the various eras as the story progressed on stage. They ranged from jeans, boots, and cotton shirts for the men, to tasteful dresses for the ladies. His costume designs for the women were the best of the collection, particularly for the leading lady Kate Baldwin. Her period dresses, cocktail dresses, and evening gowns were beautifully crafted and tailored in rich fabrics that sexily flattered her body. In the elegant hotel room scene during Act Two, the cocktail dresses and gowns for the women were exquisite. The copper satin gown worn by Vashti was my personal favorite. Mahshie complimented each costume with dazzling jewels, shoes, and gloves. Even the hosiery worn by the ladies had that black long line the back. There is a brief moment when Baldwin appeared on stage to reach her son (after he was beaten up), wearing a luxurious ball gown of black tulle and beading that Mahshie designed. But it is only on stage for a mere few seconds. I wish they had left her on stage a bit longer for the audience to take in that impeccable designed gown.
Many of the cast in this production came direct from Broadway, several whom I had seen before in New York. The entire cast was stunning, from the ensemble to the principals. Not a single one of them ever stepped out of the moment. They immersed themselves into their characters even if they had no dialogue or songs.
Of particular note were the Latino cast members. While the rich white Texans boasted about their wealth, prestige, glory, and how they won Texas, I watched how the Latino cast members in the background reacted. Their facial expressions and body language spoke volumes. Their subtext bled so much onto the audience, it was impossible to ignore. Enrique Acevedo, Raul Aranas, Miguel Cervantes, Natalie Cortez, Rocio Del Mar Valles, Doreen Montalvo, Isabel Santiago, and Martin Sola made up this remarkable Latin ensemble.
There were many in the company that deserved accolades for their performances. Several standouts include Michael Halling as Lord Karfrey, Andrea Lynn Green as Lil Luz Benedict, Mary Bacon as Adarene, Allison Rogers as Heidi, Isabel Santiago as Petra, William Youmans as Mott "Pinkie" Snythe, Jason Hite as Bobby Dietz Jr, and Doreen Montalvo as Lupe.
Special kudos must go to Dallas native Miguel Cervantes who portrayed Angel, a Mexican who was excited to get married and go off to war. Cervantes provided one of the few upbeat comical numbers of the score with "Jump". His energy bounced off the walls and his comedic timing was perfection.
Matt Doyle's performance as Jordy Benedict was so moving and powerful, it was such a shame that his role did not have more music. He did not have a solo until the very end of the show! His portrayal as the heir to the Benedict throne was rich in subtext. Doyle delivered the speech impediment with great restraint & believability.
His chemistry with his parents and his love interest showed greatly on stage. His performance was so strong that it begged - no demanded - a major solo, and certainly a duet with his father, to explore that dynamic inner battle of father and son. Nonetheless Doyle was smashing in this role.
My first time to see John Dossett was in the landmark film Longtime Companion. His scene work with Patrick Cassidy for me was some of the best of the entire film. My first live performance of Dossett was on Broadway where I saw him portray Father in the original production of Ragtime, and again he was remarkable. Now here in Giant he was Uncle Bawley Benedict. As the elder statesman of the most famous family in town, Dossett was commanding in the role. His stage presence could not be ignored. One of his best solos was around the campfire in the Act II. Dossett delivered a first rate performance here.
I first saw Dee Hoty on Broadway in The Will Rogers Follies. I would see her wonderful work again in the national tours of Mamma Mia!, and 9 to 5. Hoty has this regal, elegant stage presence that just glows with glittery effect. Each time I have seen her on stage, she turns me into buttery goo of warmth because she is just so glowing on stage. So what a delicious surprise it was for her to go against type and play the role of Luz Benedict. Luz is a strong, unmarried, motherless, racist woman who is made fun of behind her back. She runs the family business with an iron fist no nonsense approach. She is devoid of Southern belle, soft features. But she does love her brother Bick dearly.
Hoty and Aaron Lazar as Bick had the best duet of the entire score with "Our Mornings/That Thing". But observe Hoty's subtext, it will break your heart. When she overhears the other women make fun of her for not being married, young, beautiful, or unloved, Hoty is listening and watching it all on stage right in the shadows; her facial expressions devastate you. Hoty normally plays the romantic, beautiful leading lady in musicals. So to see her take on such a dark, un-liked character and still make the audience feel for her, well that's called talent folks! And she was overflowing with it in this role.
My first exposure to Natalie Cortez's talent was when I saw the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line where she portrayed Diana Morales. To fill the shoes of Priscilla Lopez, who originated the role, was a mighty task but Cortez not only did that, she achieved stellar success in the role. I thought she deserved a Tony nomination for her performance in that revival. If Giant makes it to Broadway, she may yet get that Tony nod because of her heartbreaking performance as Juana.
This girl had beautiful facial features you could not turn away from. Her liquid, soft brown eyes showed all the emotions of Juana's difficult life being married to a white man & to handle the ugliness of racism aimed at her. Cortez's chemistry with Doyle was so innocent and romantic you couldn't help but cheer for their marriage to break all racial doors down. Cortez had a resplendent soprano voice that would make nightingales jealous. Her various solos were all sung marvelously, in particular the haunting ballad, "Juana's Prayer". Cortez gave a star in the making performance.
Another star in the making performance was Katie Thompson as Vashti. Her family's ranch is next to the Benedict's, so she grows up with Bick, and has secretly loved him all this time. One of the best solos of the evening came from Thompson in "He Wanted a Girl". That one powerful moving ballad told us all what heartache laid within Vashti's loss of Bick to this Yankee girl he married. This was how incredible LaChiusa was with his lyrics. Thompson had one of those Broadway singing voices that composers dream of writing scores for. She ripped deep into the subtext of that solo and had the audience in the palm of her hands. In the second act Thompson had yet another great solo that spoke volumes on Vashti's character subtext and emotion in "Midnight Blues". Remember her name, this girl will be a star on Broadway!
To take on the iconic role of Jett Rink that was created by the original rebel James Dean would be a daunting challenge for any actor. This fell at the cowboy boots of PJ Griffith to tackle the role of the poor ranch hand on the Benedict payroll who became rich himself when he discovered oil. Griffith's pretty boy chiseled facial features could make the girls go "Justin Bieber who?" once they saw this stud swagger on stage. Rink bathed himself with great relish as the carefree, rebel, bad boy who actually hit on the wife of his boss! Rink's stage presence was hypnotic and dripped with sexual rawness. His subtext within his characterization was razor sharp in intensity.
The chemistry with Kate Baldwin as Leslie was so hot and sensual I think I saw the light gels begin to melt above them. Rink used his body, facial expressions, and acting tools to flesh out one of the most riveting characters in the production. His singing voice was a dynamic tenor with a booming belt cresting on a crystal clear, balanced vibrato. He did have overtones of a rock voice (he was after all in the Broadway production of American Idiot), which actually gave Jett another layer of rebel rocker. All of his solos were superior to hear and he was just phenomenal in this musical.
Aaron Lazar and Kate Baldwin portrayed the stars of Giant in the roles created on celluloid by Hudson and Taylor.
Ms. Baldwin was a gorgeous looking woman with hair that had hues of crimson red and even hints of chocolate in the light. She delivered a splendid performance as the Yankee girl who was thrown into the whole new world called Texas. Baldwin rode her character arc with muscular strength and believability. She peeled deep into the layers of Leslie's inner soul to show the full honesty of what she felt and thought. Leslie has to find her way in this strange new world her husband brings her to. She shows great compassion for the living conditions of the Mexican workers on her husband's ranch. She struggles with her relationship with Bick's sister. There is also the undiscovered possible love affair with Jett, and then later fighting for her son and her marriage. Baldwin gave immense authority to all these battles. She had radiant stage presence which gave her character an ethereal quality. Her soprano voice was rapturous to hear. Like her co-stars, she was given several solos that were not only sung beautifully but were layered with rich subtext and lyrics. Baldwin was luminous in this production.
I first saw Aaron Lazar as Fabrizio Naccarelli in the Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza. If know the show you know his first solo is sung all in Italian. When Lazar bounced onto the Lincoln Center Stage and sang that first song, the audience melted in their seats, both male and female. When he finished he was rewarded with thunderous applause. In Giant, he plays Bick Benedict, the king of the ranch, and a true loving Texan. Lazar delivered a scene stealing, exceptional performance that demanded to be repeated on Broadway.
He had to shoulder and carry this new musical, and he did it with superlative results. His stage presence glowed and exploded brighter than the fireworks on New Year's Eve. He was a tall, gorgeous looking, masculine leading man that oozed sex appeal we don't see that much of on Broadway (or any stage) anymore. He very wisely spoke and sang with a realistic Texan twang. It wasn't over the top or forced, it came out naturally. His character development and subtext was compelling from beginning to end. He felt, breathed and lived within the skin of Bick. Lazar showed every flaw and mistake with raw truth. He never came off false but instead portrayed a character the audience deeply felt and cared for. He went beyond just acting; he gave the audience the heart and soul of Bick, flaws and all. Lazar's singing voice was the best of the entire evening. He had a basket full of songs to sing, and each one was a musical, glittery bauble of voice and song. He belted to the very back of the Wyly Theatre with a big set of lungs in one song then went into a lilting high tenor soft note in another. Lazar was the star of Giant, and rightfully so.
Baldwin & Lazar had magnetic chemistry that was both sizzling and tantalizing. They played off each other with incredible believability. They were both always in the moment with each other, especially in the second act. One of the best duets sung by Lazar & Baldwin was called "The Desert". I gave LaChiusa a standing ovation for this song. Why? Because in the lyrics both characters discussed what they wanted in the next half of their lives. But when Lazar sang to Baldwin, after hearing her vision of her life, "I wasn't a part of your dreams", we see that maybe their marriage won't last after all. Instead of tying their love story in a nice sweet bow, LaChiusa gave it realism and honesty. After all they had gone through, would their marriage really last? Lazar and Baldwin sang this duet with tears glistening in their eyes. It was gut wrenching to watch and hear because you felt their pain, fear, and possible resolution to the loss of the marriage, and maybe even their love for each other.
Giant the musical was not some over the top hillbilly musical. It was not some glitzy spectacle with special effects and gimmicks. It wasn't some big, splashy comedy musical either. It was a very internal, character driven musical that was slathered in finely detailed subtext, clothed in a majestic score, lyrics and very solid book. It was a musical you must pay attention to. Not just some eye feast with bells and whistles, distracting you from a lame book and score like some recent musicals have done.
Giant was another artistic, glowing success for the Dallas Theater Center. I'll say it once again. This is another musical that needs serious consideration in taking to Broadway. I mean, you already have a director, composer, production design team, and half a cast that all have already worked on Broadway! What more do you need? Sure the book and a few of the songs could use some tweaking and editing. But Giant is a stunning, phenomenal, creative achievement of a new musical. Now it needs to go to Broadway!
Dallas Theater Center , AT&T Performing Arts Center
2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Runs through February 19th
Shows are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday & Saturday at 8:00 pm; Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm; and select Sundays at 7:30pm. Additional performance Thursday Feb. 16th at 2:00 pm
Tickets start at $15 (maximum prices vary by performance) and are available online at www.dallastheatercenter.org or by phone at 214-880-0202.