ON THE RECORD: Michael John LaChiusa's Giant

By Steven Suskin
26 May 2013

Brian d'Arcy James
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghostlight now brings us the CD, and it is a must for anyone interested in emotional, intelligent, musical theatre. Giant encompasses a quarter century, from 1925 to 1952; a time of enormous change in Texas. (There was a lot going on elsewhere, but little intrudes with the exception of the WWII; Texas, in this musical, is a world in itself.) LaChiusa offers a palette of expansive Texas songs, Mexican songs, jazz, swing, musical comedy, searing character songs and more—and he succeeds on every count.

I have admired LaChiusa's work since he first appeared in the winter of 1993 with First Lady Suite and Hello Again. Giant marks his first score that I can fully embrace, and enthusiastically so. I've always applauded him for seeming to write what he believed he must write, with no compromise; he almost seemed oblivious to the question of popular or audience acceptance. With Giant he appears to have absorbed all those lessons he has learned along the way. There is no artistic compromise, here; this is clearly a LaChiusa score. But it is a majestic score. It turns out that he has apparently always had this in him, he just never before was moved to write it.

Giant is the story of Texan rancher Bick Benedict (Brian D'Arcy James), who returns home with his new wife Leslie (Kate Baldwin), an outsider from Virginia. Jett (P.J. Griffith), a poor ranch hand, takes a shine to Leslie and eventually becomes an oil tycoon. Bick runs the family ranch with his much older-sister Luz (Michelle Pawk), who soon dies but nevertheless remains a visible presence. The older generation is also represented by Uncle Bawley Benedict (John Dossett), who it turns out studied piano in Paris and partied with Debussy before being forced back to Texas by the family.

Bick finds himself unable to change with the times, both in terms of business—as cattle are supplanted by oil—and family, as he becomes increasingly estranged from Leslie and his children, the delicate Jordy (Bobby Steggert) and the firebrand Lil Luz (MacKenzie Mauzy). Also of importance is Vashti (Katie Thompson), the daughter from the next ranch over who Bick passes over in favor of Leslie, and Juana (Natalie Cortez), a Mexican girl who ultimately marries young Jordy.

The above-mentioned actors all gave exceptional performances at the Public, which are carried over to the CD. When was the last time you saw a musical with nine strong performances—or with nine major characters, even? D'Arcy James (Next to Normal) and Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow) pretty much carried the musical, with Baldwin doing an exceptional job with her seven big songs. Griffith (American Idiot), in the James Dean role, was a new discovery; highly effective, although the authors didn't quite convince me with the character development in the second act.