By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A giant of a musical opened here the other night, but it wasn't Giant, the horseless cowpoke operetta now plodding along at the Wyly Theatre, a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and New York's Public Theater. It was Kismet at Irving's Lyric Stage, a four-performance concert that ticked all the boxes of what makes a musical great: lush score (by Robert Wright, based on classical themes by Borodin); witty, memorable lyrics (by George Forrest); grand, passionate performances by fine actors with voices that tickled the back balcony; and a strong, clear story (book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis) that lifted spirits and sent you twirling into the night, grateful for the experience.
If Lyric Stage doesn't win a regional Tony Award in the next five years, those Yankee award-givers aren't paying attention. With each season — and Lyric's about to begin its 20th at the Irving Arts Center — Steven Jones' company gets better at finding and producing neglected old American musicals, doing them the way their creators intended, with original orchestrations, cut scenes restored, full casts and a 40-piece orchestra. Next season, Lyric is doing a long-forgotten Frank Loesser piece, Pleasures and Palaces, which never made it to Broadway but in Irving will get the major revival it deserves.
Lyric presents these masterpieces on per-show budgets below what DTC has spent on costumes for Giant (whose total budget was $1.4 million). For Kismet, directed and choreographed by Len Pfluger, Lyric went all out on talent, but barebones on extras. The 35 singers and dancers performed in street clothes on simple ramps against a sheer backdrop. And it still looked spectacular — on a $90,000 budget
What was lacking in set dressing was more than made up in the extravagance of musical expertise in the pit under the direction of conductor Jay Dias, and onstage among the show's leads. Baritone Christopher Carl, who played Kismet's Poet and will likely be back for the Loesser show, is as tall, brash and sexy as Broadway's hunks of yesteryear, stars like Howard Keel and John Raitt. Cecily Ellis-Bills sang the role of Marsinah with a bell-clear sweetness and just the right touch of sass. As her suitor, the Caliph, Jonathan Bragg was the dreamiest of handsome princes, pouring his heart into "Stranger in Paradise" and "This Is My Beloved," two of Broadway's most luscious love songs.
Kismet is that funny old fairy tale based on Arabian Nights, and the only American musical set in 11th century Baghdad. Written in the early 1950s, it's about as exotic as vanilla. The virgin marries the prince. The evil Wazir, played at Lyric by the marvelous Brian Mathis (who's also understudying a role in Giant), is dispatched without bloodshed. The poetic con man who makes it all happen is rewarded with a bag of gold and the 11 o'clock number.
It's a shame Lyric scheduled Kismet for a short run. By the second night, word spread among local theater geekery that this was an event. It felt like something special, a celebration of the best in musical theater.
Which is what is wrong with Giant at the Wyly. It doesn't feel special. It doesn't feel like anything much, except long and grim. Whereas everyone at Kismet, including the audience, ended the evening jumping for joy, not a single character in Giant is happy, though almost everyone in the story is rich as Croesus and only getting richer, thanks to gushers pumping oil out of the back 40. Hard to gin up sympathy for sad land barons.
Giant is DTC's latest attempt to strike it rich with a hit musical that'll go somewhere. The cast, all New York actors, transfers from here to the Public Theater in New York. Maybe up there they won't notice all the Texanisms the show bungles, from the way the cowboys mishandle their lariats to the tune they try to pass off as some bogus version of "Texas Our Texas." (This one's called "My Texas," but it ain't anything like MY Texas.)
The sloppily plundered source is Edna Ferber's 1952 novel, one of the Great American Novels if there ever was one. Giant tells the 25-year saga of the Benedict family of Reata, the biggest cattle ranch in West Texas. Starting in the 1920s with Jordan "Bick" Benedict's impulsive marriage to a Virginia doctor's daughter, Leslie Lynnton, the narrative covers their lives, their children, closest friends and some of the many Mexican-Americans who live and work on Reata before and after the oil wells come in.
Unlike the musical, adapted by Sybille Pearson with an emphasis on death and disgruntlement, with unlovable music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, the novel bristles with humor and hot sexual vibes between characters. Ferber had a great ear for dialogue and she caught how real Texans turn a phrase, letting Luz, the no-nonsense sister of Bick, say "I ain't got enough clothes to dust a fiddle." Bick predicts his no-'count mechanic Jett Rink will "probably end up a billionaire ... or in the electric chair." None of that saucy twang makes it onto the stage.
Here's how Ferber described the Benedict mansion, sitting smack-dab in the middle of 2.5 million acres of flat Lone Star landscape: "Everything was on a gargantuan scale, as though the house had been built and furnished for a race of giants. Chairs were the size of couches, couches the size of beds. There were chairs of cowhide with fanciful backs fashioned from horns."
If you've lived in Texas a while, you've been in a house like that, on a ranch or in Highland Park. Where you won't see Ferber's Reata is in DTC's Giant, which suggests wide horizons and bigger-than-life furnishings with a puffy-cloud backdrop, a wooden water tower and a clunky staircase to nowhere.
The other "giant" of Ferber's tale is Bick himself, and here's where Broadway director Michael Greif went cockeyed on casting. Actor Aaron Lazar, star of the recent New York revival of A Little Night Music, is short, skinny-legged, slope-shouldered and squinty. Rock Hudson's Texas accent as Bick in the 1956 Hollywood Giant was cornpone, but he looked like a big man who could sit a saddle and run a ranch. Under a too-new Stetson, Lazar bears an unsettling resemblance to George W. Bush, nobody's idea of a romantic lead.
Quick takes on the rest: Kate Baldwin has a powerful mezzo as Leslie, belting tunes you'll forget as soon as the notes strike your earlobes. She has zero chemistry with Bick. Dee Hoty is tough as beef jerky as Luz. Pearson's script kills Luz off earlier than Ferber did, so the musical brings her back in the second act as a ghost. Dumb.
PJ Griffith plays Jett Rink (the James Dean role) with wrist-flapping, lead-from-the-pelvis fey ooze. Katie Thompson as Vashti Hake, the chubby ranch girl Bick was supposed to marry but didn't, is a first-rate singer and actress in a second-fiddle role. Her solos in each half of the three-hour Giant are waker-uppers, though both songs are about how miserable she is.
Join the crowd, darlin'.