Bick and Leslie's Big Song in Giant
There are many things amiss in the musical Giant, the Dallas Theater Center/Public Theater co-production playing a couple more weekends at the Wyly Theatre. But let's just look at the top dozen.
1. These Yankees make rotten Texans. The whole cast of Giant was imported from New York Cit-ay. Their fake Texas accents screw up vowels and consonants. Real Texans hit their Rs hard, for instance; we don't elide over them or sound like a breathy Georgia peach. The main accent needed for Giant is the one from Southwest Texas. To hear differences in regional Texas accents, listen to Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove and Robert Duvall in The Apostle and Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. Ditto Tommy Lee Jones when he plays Texans. It's a big state with lots of ways of drawling diphthongs. Nobody in Giant talks right.
2. Edna Ferber, who wrote the epic 1952 novel Giant, captured the flat but witty way real Texans turn a phrase. The book is full of spicy dialogue among rich ranchers and their bored-to-distraction wives who complain about having to take their "little ol' bitty plane" on a shopping trip to Neiman's or "not having enough clothes to dust a fiddle." The musical's book, adapted by Sybille Pearson, reflects almost none of Ferber's funny snatches of conversation. It also misses the novel's portrayal of how new oil money corrupted families who once lived off the land, one of the major themes of the book.
3. Giant, the book and the 1956 movie, tell parallel stories of the Benedict family, owners of a 2.5 million-acre cattle ranch in Southwest Texas, and the gradual rise in status of their Mexican-American workers. When Bick Benedict brings his Virginia-born wife Leslie home from their honeymoon, her first venture away from the main house is into the squalid shack of one of Bick's chief vaqueros (Mexican cowboys). (The scene is in the musical, but it's unclear where Leslie is or who the Mexican lady with the baby is.) Leslie vows to Bick, to his great displeasure, to improve living conditions for the workers. By the end of the book, she's done that, and Bick and Leslie's son, Jordy, has married the daughter of one of the workers, showing an uneasy but inevitable change in Texas culture. In the musical, the only time a vaquero character is allowed a solo, he's dead before his song is over. The plot about Jordy's wife is altered, too, without the emphasis on racial discrimination.
4. Sybille Pearson's adaptation of Giant for the stage omits many of the novel's best scenes -- like Jett Rink showing up at Reata covered in oil from his gusher coming in, which was also a key moment, played beautifully by James Dean, in the film. And Pearson adds weird stuff, turning a grizzled old bachelor-cowboy character, Uncle Bawley, into a man who sings a long ballad about dreaming of being a concert pianist and traveling to Paris to have drinks with Claude Debussy. I combed the book for any reference to Uncle Bawley's love of music or his desire to fraternize with French composers. Didn't find it. Pearson also gives a second-tier female character breast cancer, another plot point the novel didn't have and the musical doesn't need.
5. There is no chemistry between the actors playing Bick and Leslie, and they look completely wrong for their roles. Aaron Lazar, the Broadway actor playing Bick, is short, skinny, dark and bears a strong facial resemblance to squinty, thin-lipped George W. Bush. Kate Baldwin, the mezzo soprano playing Leslie, is tall, red-haired, curvy and kittenish. For those of us who know and love the novel, she's so physically wrong for the part, it's like watching Lucille Ball play Scarlett O'Hara. Or, for you contemporary readers of current big works of fiction, it's like watching Katherine Heigl play Hermione Granger.
6. Having killed off Luz Benedict, Bick's older sister (played by Dee Hoty), too early in the first act, the musical brings her back as a ghost for the rest of the show. It's confusing when the lights come up on in the second act and she and Bick are together again to sing a long number that makes us think she's been miraculously resurrected. In the novel, she dies later and stays dead.
7. There's no dancing in this musical. They act like they might dance at the big act one barbecue and again when Angel, the young vaquero, sings "Jump," about his desire to get off Reata and have a different life. But they never dance at all. So why is there a choreographer in the credits of this $1.4 million show?
8. For something billed as the biggest production DTC has ever attempted, 15 musicians seems a bit puny. Lyric Stage, on budgets under $100,000 a show, regularly puts 40 professional musicians in its orchestra pit.
9. The music in this musical is tuneless and monotonous. Composer Michael John LaChiusa strings a lot of words together, but not in interesting ways. Here are some lyrics from one of Bick's big songs at the top of the show, when he's telling Leslie about the flora and fauna of Texas: "Animals a'plenty, white-tailed deer and antisocial badgers. Got wild pigs and fierce little bobcats. The panthers are gone from these parts but there's plenty o' coyote with plenty o' smarts. And caaaaaaa-tuuuuuuuuul." Even a smart coyote would howl in horror at that kind of caterwaulin'. "Antisocial badgers?" Hell's bells.
10. Every character in this musical Giant is unhappy. They sing a lot of songs about being unhappy. Even the actors look glum during the curtain call. This does not make patrons, who've paid around $150 a ticket on the main floor, feel good as they stumble out into the night. Musicals should make you feel better than this. Also, it's really, really hard to work up a case of the weeps for characters who are miserable millionaires.
11. In the final scene of DTC's Giant, a pregnant lady climbs a water tower and sings a song. This ridiculous bit of business makes the audience uneasy. There's never a good reason to make a pregnant lady climb anything.
12. For a show about Texas, produced in Texas, Dallas Theater Center couldn't cast a single local actor, even in a supporting role? Those Brierley Resident Acting Company members DTC is always crowing about were shut out of Giant completely. Further proof that this show is all hat and no cattle.
Giant continues through February 19 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Call 214-880-0202.