Stephen, Jerome and Anne all made it to opening night of Giant Friday night at the Dallas Theater Center. On Monday, the first thing we all did was chat about it. But this time, we’re chatting via e-mail, so we can share some of our conversation with you.
Anne: This production has been the most anticipated Theater Center project this year. And, as Jerome pointed out last week, adapting a classic novel turned classic Hollywood movie is challenging and risky. So guys, what’d you think?
Jerome: Not to ruin my review, but this is an incredible production: superlative singers, gorgeous lighting from Ken Posner – the best stage evocation of empty, sky-drenched West Texas vastness I’ve ever seen – and thanks to director Michael Greif and set designer Allen Moyer, a beautifully seamless experience. Yes, the show’s long, but it flowed masterfully from scene to scene, there was never a hitch.
The major problem has always been the book – both Giant, the novel, and Sybille Pearson’s book.
Stephen: It’s tough for me to give this a straight thumbs up, thumbs down sort of review. I’m like Jerome – there was a lot to like and some that I didn’t like so much. What surprised me was that nearly everything I liked was in the first act and everything I didn’t showed up in Act II. First, the positives. Like Jerome, I was truly wowed by the sets and lighting – the relatively small Wyly stage was transformed into a vast West Texas landscape. And I was drawn into the story of a family in love with both their land and the mythology of their home state. When Act I comes to a close amid a very Descendants-like vote about whether or not to allow oil companies to drill holes on the ranch, I was hooked.
Then the second act takes a wildcatter’s approach to storytelling – throw a ton of plotlines out there and let’s see which ones stick. There’s the son growing away from his father, the young man who goes off to war, the kids pushing back against racism, the long-married couple looking to rekindle that spark. What began as a fairly focused story became scattershot.
I realize that this is a show called Giant and it is trying to capture the grandiosity of our beloved state. But I don’t think it was necessary to work in so much. That being said, most of the people I talked with at the after party actually enjoyed the second act better than the first.
Anne: Ha! Stephen, I appreciated the fast pace of the first half, but I liked the second half more. One more rave re: the staging: the live orchestra “in the sky” instead of in an orchestra pit was just fabulous.
Jerome’s point about the book, and your comment on storytelling, make me think we’re all having similar thoughts about the difficulty of adapting a sweeping novel for stage. I too thought there were lots of threads that never quite braided together.
Vashti’s heartbreak about losing Bick to Leslie is touching – and quickly set aside. I wanted to know more about what became of young Luz, who seems to disappear in the second half. Thought the tension between Jet and Leslie, and then Jet and Luz, was neatly laid out, then left behind or summarily wrapped up; I was sorry that the snappiest song in the show went to a character who is introduced and then dies before the song is over. I ran into Kevin Moriarty at intermission, and he mentioned the production is almost like an opera. I’d agree, but I’m not sure I like one of the similarities – characters seem to be coming and going a bit much.
A supporting character whose story satisfied, gave the production nuance and helped moved it along: Uncle Bawley Benedict, whose wisdom and pain informs and highlights the challenges other characters face. What a great performance from John Dossett. Though again, Leslie mentions that she’d like to visit him out on his solitary piece of ranch, but that thread – and relationship – drops.
At the end of the performance, it wasn’t clear to me that the central relationship, that of Bick and Leslie, evolved beyond highlighting their differences. They seemed to simply agree to go on. Similarly, Bick didn’t seem to intentionally resolve the internal struggle between looking back, a nostalgia for the past, and looking forward, to the changes of the future. Life simply progressed around him.
Perhaps all of this is true to real life: mid-life marital crises, an unrequited love, the patterns of grief, aren’t always neatly – or dramatically – resolved; people come and go in life. But I wonder if that kind of subtlety is what an audience for musicals is looking for.
Jerome: These are just points that audience members were talking about. I think Dallas audiences – or Texas audiences in general – may come away with criticisms of the show that really will have little to do with its success or failure. For instance, I’ve seen far too many productions of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and believe me, the vast majority of them had casts with accents that sounded like they were from Georgia or Mississippi, while their two-stepping seemed to be derived from discos. None of that mattered a whit to the show’s success.
But we can’t help noticing these things. Like – practically first thing – if you’re going to twirl a lariat on stage, you’d better know what you’re doing. Opening night’s lackadaisical roping nearly produced laughs. And I realize musicals are not about hard-edged reality, but noooobody seemed to be particularly sweaty or dirty or worn down for all their ranching and oilfield roughnecking. At one point, Leslie (Kate Baldwin) does get lost wandering around the huge ranch and she cleverly dusts herself to suggest her ordeal. But that stood out because here, the average ranch hand’s boots and jeans looked pretty fine.
Stephen: Part of the reason that this debut has been so hotly anticipated is because there are real hopes that the show could be taken to Broadway. The fact that it’s a co-production with New York’s Public Theater certainly doesn’t hurt.
Considering our quibbles with the show, does anyone think it has what it takes to go All. The. Way!
My feeling is that what it does have going for it is it is a known property – both as a novel and a classic movie. Broadway producers are like Hollywood producers in that they feel more comfortable backing something that might already have a built-in audience of people who have liked the material in previous forms. It’s safer, it would seem, and so it’s understandable that those with money could gravitate to it.
But can a story about one man’s love for the Texasness of Texas really play to a national audience?
Anne: My track record’s not great on this front. I had questions about whether Give it Up would make it to Broadway. It did, as Lysistrata Jones, and got some great reviews.
Jerome: We’re talking about two different things here, making it TO Broadway and making it ON Broadway.
Getting to Broadway for a musical is a little like a movie being a hit on the festival circuit – but will it get picked up for theatrical distribution? You have to be a hit the right money people. That’s a very narrow target audience. Stephen’s right in that the Public Theater staging of Giant will be an excellent showcase, a real chance to be looked over by investors and producers. But I’ve seen shows at the Public that were produced and directed by the great Hal Prince (Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Evita, Sweeney Todd), which didn’t go anywhere afterwards.
And Stephen’s right that the name-recognition factor is something Broadway considers just as much as Hollywood does. Why else have all those Hollywood movies, good, bad or wretched (Lion King, Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mary Poppins) gotten musical adaptations?
As for Give It Up, it made it TO Broadway, it didn’t make it ON Broadway – even with some strong reviews. With that broader audience in mind, I wonder whether Rick Perry’s less-than-stellar showing on the campaign trail means the rest of America is tired of hearing about Texas, even from a show like Giant, which is far from being a yee-haw, six-guns-blazing Texas cliché. Composer Michael John LaChiusa and bookwriter Sybille Pearson have clearly presented the show’s oil politics with President Bush and the Iraq War in mind. That’s actually somewhat in the spirit of Ferber’s original novel. But I don’t know if that helps the cause of moving the production forward – financially.
Stephen: Well, that’s it for us. If you’ve seen the show and would like to weigh in, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.