Though technically correct, the word “musical” seems to be a bit of a misnomer in this case; DTC’s “Giant” is an opera based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel by the same name. Librettist Sybille Pearson and composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, both award winning artists in their fields, adapted the story from Ferber’s book, and are more faithful to the novel than the 1955 movie version, which may be more familiar to the modern audience than the original source. If you can suspend these preconceived expectations while remembering that any version of Giant is going to be epic- both in scope and length- you will find much to enjoy about the production.
In association with New York’s Public Theater, DTC has produced a piece that spans almost three decades and hundreds of acres of “heartbreak country.” It explores themes as timeless and diverse as racism, aging, patriotism, cultural identity and marital frustrations, and is animated by a well-seasoned cast of Broadway luminaries, not to mention an onstage 15-piece orchestra. The obvious challenges of staging such a piece are daunting, but for the most part, the production succeeds beautifully, with MVP status going to Lighting Designer Kenneth Posner, whose vibrant, bold palette provides a stunning, often surreal backdrop and a subtle transition of both time and space. Visually, “Giant” is simultaneously minimal and overwhelming, and is truly a beautiful show.
Sonically, it is equally lovely. The cast is an exciting mix of talented actors and vocalists. All of the leads, particularly Kate Baldwin as Leslie, Aaron Lazar as Bick, and Dee Hoty as Luz handled the sometimes dense musical dialogue with ease and fluidity, bestowing their characters with distinctive personalities and depth. Scene-stealers included the fantastic Katie Thompson, as Vashti, and powerhouse Andrea Lynn Green, as Lil’ Luz, and John Dossett turned the minor character of Uncle Bawley into a believable reluctant patriarch.
Reviving and adapting a piece of iconic status like “Giant” is a risk, particularly after more than five decades. One wonders if it will have the same power and resonance in a world that has seen rapid, seismic change. For many in the audience, the Texas of the 1950s has very little in common with the state we inhabit today, especially for those who have only lived in the big city. I watched the play sitting next to some of the 50 students from public schools from around the district who were there through the DTC’s magnificent Project Discovery program.
Project Discovery, DTC’s 26 year old educational outreach program, provides tickets, busing, workshops and study guides to students who may not have access to the theater. And after talking to some of the young men and women from North Dallas High, Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy and Sunset High School, I was shocked at how much the performance resonated with them.
“Man, I hate that dude!” scowled one young man when Jett Rink slunk onstage. One doesn’t have to understand the technical aspects of a theatrical production to have a visceral response to the characters and story. Even a teenager understands passion, competition, jealousy and desire.
“I would leave him, I swear I would,” gushed one girl to her friend. “You wouldn’t. You might want to, but when you love someone, like ‘forever love,’ you’ll put up with a lot, trying to make it work,” her wise friend said.
One young man observed: “A lot has changed about how Mexicans were treated back then, even though the land was originally theirs. But you know what? A lot has stayed the same. Do you think things ever really change?”
Any production that can provoke this kind of thought and discussion among strangers in a lobby is a success in my book.
While the DTC’s production of “Giant” has some pretty big flaws, it is compelling and layered, and makes for a fabulous evening. It’s a Valentine to a state, a way of life, a love that lasts for ages, the ever-morphing genre of musical theater, and to change itself.
“Giant” runs through Feb. 19.