- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

Sprawling, far-reaching, and nearly woozy with some of the most epic and stirring music composer Michael John LaChiusa has ever written, Signature Theatre’s “Giant” lives up to its name.

Clocking in at nearly four hours and featuring a range of musical genres from Mexican folk songs to big band jazz, this multigenerational saga — under the direction of Jonathan Butterell — about Lone Star ranchers, oil barons and racism begs the musical question: “Does 50 pounds of flour make a big biscuit?”

Based on Edna Ferber’s novel and made into a 1956 classic film (starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, in his final role), “Giant” depicts the growing pains — and pride — in Texas, while also reflecting on the nation’s values gained and lost. Moving from 1922 to the postwar era, the musical centers on the complicated marriage between rich cattleman Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Lewis Cleale) and his Virginia belle wife Leslie (Betsy Morgan).

She’s bookish and high-minded. He’s a taciturn workhorse married to the land and the entrenched bigotry against Mexicans instilled in him by his older sister Luz (Judy Blazer, indelibly hard-bitten), who represents traditional suspicion against outsiders. For all their potential combustion, Bick and Leslie are cool customers, and the actors are in magnificent voice. But their characters never display enough emotional depth to draw you into their personal struggles.

The much-needed heat comes from other characters, notably the handyman-turned-oilman Jett Rink (played with dimpled menace by the superb Ashley Robinson), who radiates danger from the moment he snakes onstage to sing two insinuating songs, “Private Property” and “Elsie Mae.” John Dossett admirably channels Chill Wills in his grand portrayal of Uncle Bawley, although the New Age excesses of his song about the legend of the coyote are cringe-worthy.



As Bick’s spurned gal pal, Vashti, Katie Thompson possesses one of those heartbreakingly gulpy sweetheart of the rodeo voices; putting it to shiveringly good use in Mr. LaChiusa’s twin showstoppers, “He Wanted a Girl” and “Midnight Blues.” The torpor of the second act is relieved by the third act opener, the lively jive of “Jump,” a song about assimilation and going places brought to life by Andres Quintero.

The sheer size of “Giant’s” world premiere at Signature — three acts, more than 4,200 bars of music, a 30-member cast plus a 15-piece orchestra (Chris Fenwick’s deft orchestrations are one of the show’s treasures) — is both its attraction and its downfall. You can’t help but be in awe of the scope and “everything’s bigger in Texas” approach to the characters and the bombast of the musical numbers. But you also become overwhelmed by the lack of focus and the acreage of songs, subplots, and themes.

It’s like being plopped square in the middle of a Texas ranch with a busted compass and a granola bar.

★★

WHAT: “Giant,” music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, book by Sybille Pearson

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 31.

TICKETS: $49 to $77

PHONE: 703/573-7328 WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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