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Heartbreak Country by Matthew Murray

  • Giant1.jpgIf you ever endured a history lecture in high school or college that droned on longer than the Hundred Years' War, you obviously didn't have Michael John LaChiusa or Sybille Pearson as a professor. Giant, the pair's sprawling new musical at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, not only charts the rise of the modern Texas oil magnate over 27 tumultuous years in the early 20th century, but does it so smartly, so smoothly, and so succinctly that when you emerge after three acts and a solid four hours of running time, you'll be gasping for still more.

    Unfortunately, although the show astonishes with its breadth, engrosses with its story, and transports you with its commitment to the time, people, and places Edna Ferber laid down in her 1952 novel of the same title, it does not transform you, either emotionally or spiritually. And with such substantial investments of time, of ear, and of intellect required, that's almost an insurmountable deficit. Everything here is at least good, and frequently much better. But with ambitions this lofty, nothing less than greatness will satisfy, and the show is great only in isolated moments.

    This will likely not surprise longtime followers of LaChiusa. The most gifted and inventive of the post-Sondheim "post-modernist" composers, he has repeatedly molded conventionally unwieldy sources into musicals so bracing yet so sensible that you can't help but wonder why anyone considered them unworkable. From a time-shifting La Ronde and a Creole Medea to a modernized Rashomon and more or less straight adaptations of The Wild Party and The House of Bernarda Alba, LaChiusa's works have ostensibly violated every tenet of musical-writing, but been more intrinsically true to theatrical traditions than most of what's produced today.

    Giant is, in many ways, the culmination of LaChiusa's career to date. Its score is infused not just with Texas twang and the baying echoes of the windswept Southern prairies, but the popular-melodic language of the four years (1925, 1941, 1944, and 1952) during which we see the action unfurl. In its development of dramatic and musical themes, which are as likely to stretch across acts as they are across scenes (as in a haunting third-act sequence set in the desert), this is thoughtful and mature writing that respects and rewards rapt attention. And his individual compositions—"Heartbreak Country," a paean to an unforgiving but irreplaceable land; "Topsy-Turvy," an acknowledgment of a rapidly spinning world; and his bobby-socking "Jump" for the generation yet to come—should hopefully stifle once and for all the naysayers who've claimed that he is incapable of writing songs in the simplest, catchiest, and most heartfelt of Golden Age traditions.

    But he and his coauthor leave you with the nagging suspicion throughout that they're attempting too much in too little a way. The story follows half a dozen direct members of the central Benedict family as they progress from ranch owners to oil barons, with all the success and stress that evolution implies. Then there are the Benedicts' various friends, enemies, and coworkers, who swell out the periphery of a still bigger picture of how Texas became the center of both American wealth and American cockiness. And then there are the Mexicans, who are initially seen as servants, but are destined to become an integral part of the state, the country, and even the Benedicts themselves.

    This, then, is an epic on the scale of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's timeless adaptation of Ferber's Show Boat, even touching on its key theme of the complex relationship between racism and American success. But Kern and Hammerstein compressed, reduced, and simplified in a way that LaChiusa and Pearson have not, which makes their translation into a work of unmatched grandeur, poignancy, and even comedy that much more of an accomplishment. LaChiusa's unique voice swells throughout and between his 30-plus songs (which have been thoughtfully and beautifully orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman). Pearson's book burrows into everyone and everything with which the story comes in contact, revealing far more intriguing colors and shades than the story's famous 1956 film, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. But the toughest choices about the most important whos, whats, wheres, and hows to include (and to leave out) have been forsaken in favor of including more of everything—a tradeoff that, in the theatre, seldom pays dividends.

    So although Giant may be remarkably free of excess, it doesn't possess all the depth it needs to make every minute mean the most it possibly can. Major plot developments at the end of the first and second acts have a slightly musty odor of let's-get-through-this narration that LaChiusa and Pearson otherwise scrupulously avoid. Certain characters all but disappear in Act III, or are such infrequent presences that their full purposes can't be understood (or perhaps divined) until it's almost too late. Other characters' actions are supposedly of story-shaking importance, but are handled so quickly or casually that you may not understand what all the stated fuss was really about.

    Despite the book's and score's moments of genuine accomplishment, Giant ultimately feels like a potential-packed work-in-progress that, like the Benedict clan, is stumbling about in search of its complete identity. The creative team facilitates this to some degree. Although director Jonathan Butterell, best known in New York as a choreographer (of the recent revivals of Nine, Fiddler on the Roof, and Assassins, as well as The Light in the Piazza), is working at the top of his game, but his staging is a bit shy of the vision and creativity needed to bring LaChiusa and Pearson's ever-expanding Texas to life. And although Susan Hilferty's costumes and Japhy Weideman's lights are more than adequate, Dane Laffrey's sparse-at-best set lacks the presence and character necessary to properly blur the lines between the land and the people who live on it.

    Giant2-2.jpgFor the most part, the cast could hardly be bettered. Lewis Cleale is a dynamic presence and a steely singer as Jordan Benedict (better known as Bick), who not only learns where Texas ends and his family begins, but changes the definitions along the way. Judy Blazer brings a tastily earthy tenacity to Jordan's force-of-nature sister Luz, the standard-bearer matriarch who defines what's being lost and gained as time marches forward. Ashley Robinson is superbly oily as the strikes-it-rich ranch hand who spends most of his life proving he's poor in all the ways that count. Jordan Nichols and Jessica Grové are ideal as the Benedict children, Jordy and Lil Luz, who are themselves struggling against their parents' expectations, and Marisa Echeverríbrings an appropriately tortured sweetness to Jordy's put-upon Mexican wife. Only Betsy Morgan seems a casting misstep: She brings too much stiffness, and too little suppleness of voice, to the pivotal role of Leslie, Bick's wife and the queen of a kingdom she wants nothing of.

    John Dossett has perhaps the most spectacular turn as Jordan's sage uncle Bawley. In the magnificent three-part finale that closes the first act on the highest of notes, he plows through not only some of LaChiusa's most drivingly inspirational songs, but one of the most thrilling, plot-centric musical monologues to be domesticated on the popular theatrical stage. "Look ahead," Bawley advises Bick and Leslie when they think they're at their lowest, "Keep forward / Don't you stray, / You got all those / Tomorrows / Up the Way."

    But as he sings, your mind is less with the Benedicts than with the show chronicling them. There's too much of value here to wither and vanish, but it needs additional work (to say nothing of additional productions) to achieve the success that's currently just outside its grasp. Whether it will be allowed these opportunities is difficult to say. The complement of 21 actors is about the lowest supportable (and even so sometimes looks underpopulated), the 15-member orchestra (counting conductor Chris Fenwick) is the minimum that could capture the sound and the style so crucial to the story, and there's so little waste that the imposing running time could probably not be trimmed by any significant amount. The size of it all may be unprecedented, but it's not unjustified; it may, however, prove too daunting, if not outright untenable, for producers in New York or most anywhere else.

    Regardless, this evening wears its expansive eccentricity with the pride and brash confidence a cowboy might sport a 10-gallon hat, and is already the show to beat for the title of 2009's most important musical. No other recent work has better exploited, explored, and exploded the possibilities of the form. (The last one that came close was LaChiusa's own Bernarda Alba, which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2006.) This show doesn't remotely keep every promise it makes, but when it soars, little flies higher. Fans of musicals everywhere should either do anything they can to get to Arlington or at least hope with all their strength that LaChiusa and Pearson find the resources they need to keep their amazing, but troubled, Giant aloft.

    Giant runs through May 31 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. For information or tickets, click here.

    Photos by Scott Suchman. Top to bottom: Betsy Morgan and Lewis Cleale; Judy Blazer and Lewis Cleale; Betsy Morgan and Ashley Robinson; John Dossett; Jessica Grové; and Jordan Nichols and Marisa Echeverria.

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