Book by Sybille Pearson
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Directed by Michael Grief
Starring Brian D'arcy James and Kate Baldwin
Papp/Public Theater, Newman Space


Book and Lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford
Music vby David Pomeranz and David Friedman
Additional Music by Ms. Gifford
Starring Carolee Carmello
Featuring George Hearn, Candy Buckley and Roz Ryan
Directed by David Armstrong
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Right around the turn of the Millennium, maybe a little before, under circumstances I think I’m still honor-bound to keep unspecified, I had occasion to examine Edna Ferber’s novel of Texas, Giant, as a musical dramatist, though I was never (to my knowledge) officially up for the job. (I think even then the Ferber estate was circling the Michael John LaChiusa runway, but it was far from a commitment.) I read the novel, watched the George Stevens film (screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat), took a few pages of notes—and when fate indicated I should direct my creative attentions elsewhere, I, in a professional sense, forgot about it. But spending deep time analyzing an iconic property creates a familiarity that lingers and what I didn’t forget was how trappy and tricky a proposition adapting it for the musical stage would be.

                        The milieu of the story—developing Texas from the 30s through the 50s—and the characters—ranch men, oil men, workers, the nearby and intertwined Mexican community—had the potential to sing like crazy, because they were all big and larger than life. The problem was the story itself. Most musicals, and especially musicals based on classic literature, are powered by a single main character who wants something tangible. The journey to achieve that goal (and how it changes him or her, and affects others) is where the depth and muscle for powerful song come from, because it’s the meeting place of passion, desire and forward movement. But Giant is one of those historical potboilers that’s concerned not with those who shape history…but those who are shaped by it. The married couple in the center—Bick Benedict, a young cattle baron and Leslie nee Lynnton, his debutante wife from New York high society—aren’t on a quest. Upon moving to Texas, she’s certainly a fish out of water, appalled by the lower status accorded women and the even lower status accorded the Mexican workers…but though she notes her objections, she never steps up to become a reformer. Mostly she learns to adjust without sacrificing her dignity. As for Bick: Tradition is in his blood and he wants things to stay exactly as they are. But they won’t and they don’t, and he’s left to observe much of the precious cattle land turned over to oil developers. Which essentially makes him an impotent witness, save for how he learns to adjust and reclaim his dignity, albeit very late in the story. (That’s another thing: Edna Ferber was famous for writing strong-willed women and men who, despite bravado, were psychologically weak, or limited.) Actually, there is one main character in Giant who pursues a goal: Jett Rink, an ambitious ranch hand who will become the oil magnate who is our cattle baron’s nemesis. But he’s ultimately empty and self-destructive, getting his existential just desserts without anyone’s help.

                        My overriding thought about the material was that it lent itself to cinema, which can sustain character study and sometimes even eschew plot momentum altogether—but that anyone adapting it for a musical would have to reframe the story and its characters such that, without distorting the essentials, an overarching goal could be threaded through it. (One could argue that Show Boat, also based on a potboiler Ferber novel with similar challenges, has been very successful, but for too many reasons to get into here, that success is era-idiosyncratic and has a history of inconsistency: every subsequent revival has significantly reworked the libretto, in an effort to find a way of making its disparate elements cohere.) Because if you didn’t reframe the story, you’d be trapped by it.

                        That’s exactly what has happened with the musical version of Giant, score by the aforementioned and highly gifted Mr. LaChiusa, book by Sybille Pearson. And it explains why audience reaction has been so divided. The co-authors make a swell creative team and they’ve clearly attacked their task with gusto, intelligence, sensitivity and as much Texas authenticity as they can muster. But in rendering the lead characters as the novel renders them—reactive rather than causative—they anchor all that bigness to that passivity, so the musical can never truly deliver on its promise grandeur and sweep. Characters do accumulate a kind of inner-life momentum on aggregate as they move through the timeline and have to adjust to changing times and mores; but that’s a slow process, and for a musical too slow, because it holds back the natural energy of the form (you can combine it with quest-action, but by itself it’s static). So there are some audience members who (properly) admire the show’s integrity, ambition and class; for them that’s the mark of its quality and they’re the most outspoken proponents; but there are others for whom, even though they may be admiring as well, that’s not adequate compensation for the lack of thrust. And indeed, though all the songs are well-wrought and beautifully delivered (I’d argue with the placement of a few, but in a story whose characters remain in stasis, placement may be highly debatable), number after number fails to win a smart, solid, sustained burst of enthusiastic applause. And—if the performance I attended is representative, and it seemed an awfully good one—at the end, in this era of standing ovations for almost anything that simply does its job properly, the audience remains mostly seated at the curtain call. Appreciative to be sure, but seated; and again, the applause is respectable. But if a big Texas show called Giant can’t be a foolproof rouser, there’s a problem.

                        I’m happy to say that, if you grade on a curve with faithfulness to your source material eliciting high marks, the principal fault lies not with the creative team (including director Michael Grief) but is rather endemic to Ms. Ferber’s work. But it saddens me that they didn’t identify the endemic problem; because therein would have been the key to liberation and maybe even a smash hit.

                        As it is, neither Edna Ferber nor her fans or estate have any reason to complain about the novel not being rendered fairly and accurately (if a little perfunctorily here and there, given how compressed the novel’s complex narrative has become, which is also a symptom of accommodating too many passive characters’ progress points as they develop). I personally found it never dull and always at least interesting. And the cast is quite wonderful, with Brian D’Arcy James, Kate Baldwin and PJ Griffith strong and memorable as the central triumvirate—and real-life married couple Michele Pawk and John Dosset score well in supporting roles: she as Bick’s domineering older sister Luz; and he (giving perhaps the most effective, affecting, deep and rounded performance in the show) as Bick’s avuncular, seen-it-all and experience-wise uncle Bawley.

                        But never dull and always interesting and worthy of admiration for ambition and craftnone of which are minor, none of which come easy, all of which are necessary most of the time—aren’t a substitute for deeply moving and invigorating in a way that elicits an unequivocally demonstrative and consistent audience response. For that, you need the story whose characters have the need that requires active pursuit. And Giant, in its pure state, doesn’t have that. Never did.


Curiously, and very ironically, Scandalous, Kathie Lee Gifford’s “biopic” musical about Hollywood evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, though a far less artful and somewhat less distinguished show (no, I’m not being sarcastic), is very much more craft-savvy in terms of structure and song placement/function). For Ms. Gifford has taken a very similar challenge—the musicalization of an entire, real life—and framed it in the musical theatre structure of a quest. Musicalizing a life, no matter how dynamic, is usually unwise because a life doesn’t follow a single through-line and dramatic focus is therefore prone to sprawl. (It’s quite different than musicalizing a particular point in a real life, as 1776 does, concerning itself only with John Adams’ quest for American independence; narrowing the field to a single goal makes the story containable and cooperative.) But because McPherson’s fervent objective was saving as many souls as possible, with as much spectacular showmanshp as possible, Ms. Gifford has been smart enough to hang her show on the tail of that flying arrow. Nor do I think one should take lightly what she seems to have learned via the osmosis of being an entertainer in many different venues for a number of decades: how to cut to the chase economically in libretto dialogue, hit the themes of the show and scene and lead smartly into the right thing to sing about. There are those who will tell you the show is laughable, but beware the sneer of elitism: the truth is that the show probably isn’t for a New York City audience. Its showbiz and musical theatre textbook polish are in the service of a narrative and character that lack NYC-friendly sophistication. But it might be just the kind of thing to tour successfully.

                        This is not to say that Ms. Gifford doesn’t herself fall into the trap of the biographical musical in Act Two. Because the story doesn’t stop with the attainment of McPherson’s goal. It continues into the controversies of her life at the top: reputed affairs, scandals, drug abuse, and a general media circus in which she simply tried to hold on, with the help of those she trusted. And because at that point she’s no longer the driving force, but reacting to the forces around her, with no more dreams to fulfill, the dramatic tension of the show flattens. Additionally, in having avoided subplot and secondary threads, Ms. Gifford keeps her main character onstage for too large a proportion of the show; and with that character being played by Carolee Carmello, this presents a stamina problem, and ironically one for the audience. Ms. Carmello is a glorious, charismatic, beautiful performer with a powerhouse Broadway belt that creates the illusion of being tireless. But Ms. Gifford’s score calls upon it again and again, and Ms. Carmello gamely pumps out the notes with unflagging firepower…to the point where the constant exposure to that energy and vocal technique is relentless and at times exhausting. (One could argue that this presents a structural miscalculation of another sort, but for now I’ll sidestep analyzing things quite that deeply.)

                        As to the score: Here, again, is where Scandalous simply isn’t a NYC show. Most of the numbers hit their marks and accomplish their assignments admirably, but the music—by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, with additional tunesmithery by Ms. Gifford—is borne of standard tropes, templates and genres. So there’s a kind of cookie-cutter familiarity to everything. And that keeps the score mostly unmemorable even as it fulfills its function. But that very familiarity would find a receptive audience in the boonies. (I hasten to add, that is not a put-down or a denigration of the boonies.)

                        The direction by David Armstrong is decent, and the supporting cast—including notables such as George Hearn, Candy Buckley, and Roz Ryan—do their considerable best in roles that don’t show them off at their considerable best.

                        So all-in-all, an odd duck is Scandalous. Despite its title, it’s a mild, respectable effort for people who aren’t up for controversy…

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