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A Giant ‘Giant’ at Signature

World premiere musical fills four hours.

The first fruits of the Shen Family Foundation’s grant of a million dollars to Arlington’s Signature Theatre to support and stimulate the work of the new generation of composers of American musicals is now on view. It is the world premiere of a musical based on Edna Ferber’s "Giant" by Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson.

By any standard, "Giant" is a giant effort. Performed in the larger of Signature’s two theaters in its Shirlington Village home, The MAX Theatre which can seat 398, the show requires a cast of 21 supported by an orchestra of 14. It runs a full four hours over three acts with two intermissions to let the audience (and the performers) catch their breath.

The major roles are played with a combination of solidly satisfying consistency and occasional standout moments. Betsy Morgan makes the transition from youngster to senior in completely convincing style as the Virginia horse-country belle who comes to the dry cow country of Texas. Ashley Robinson, as the ranch hand whose sexuality is his brand, and whose audacity takes him from the dust of the corral to oil-based riches, scores a series of standout scenes including a tremendous early song, "Private Property," and the third act’s stunning final burst of drunken bombast titled "The Dog is Gonna Bark."

Surely, if theater ticket buyers gave grades for effort, the work would get a solid A+. Its sprawling story is told clearly with very few moments of narrative confusion. Its 18 scenes with their over 30 songs are structured elegantly and the songs themselves provide both melodic and rhythmic riches. Its cast is uniformly effective under the direction of Signature first-timer Jonathan Butterell, a Broadway veteran who handled the musical staging functions for the lovely "The Light in the Piazza" at Lincoln Center.

STILL, Edna Ferber’s novel proves to be just too much to condense even into a full four hours. In Pearson and LaChiusa’s hands, the first act feels like the beginning of a masterpiece, but a rather inert second act breaks the momentum before the pair seem to regain their footing for a final, lengthy assault on their topic. As efficient at delivering the key plot points as Pearson’s script is, and as effective as LaChiusa’s songs are at revealing specific character elements, the scope of the project defeats the effort to focus on any one aspect long enough to look below the surface. Love, lust, jealousy, ambition, insecurity, tradition and bigotry are each hit by dramatic and musical spotlights, but none are examined very deeply.

The central story, which some will remember from an equally sprawling screen adaptation from the 1950s starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, is the marriage of Morgan’s Virginia belle to the head of a Texas dynasty, played with a swagger that seems borrowed from John Wayne by Lewis Cleale. Adding both heft and complexity are the tales of Robinson’s swaggering sex object (the role James Dean made central to the movie even if it was a secondary one), the Texas cattle tycoon’s sister and brother, the members of their social circle and the "vaqueros" who work the spread. Generations are spanned with the stories of the children of the marriage and of the Mexican Americans who work the land.

Judy Blazer is quite marvelous as the sister who sees the new bride as competition for control of the empire and John Dossett shakes things up grandly with a first act as the brother who tries to keep things in perspective as oil supplants cattle as the source of wealth and power in Texas. Especially effective in a small role is Raul Aranas.

BUTTERELL PRESENTS the story on a wide Cinerama-shaped space with an almost split-screen staging. He places contrasting events at the extreme ends of the stage while the orchestra sits above it all separated from the action by a broad border illuminated simply with colors reinforcing the mood or emotion of each scene. A single platform hovers two-thirds of the way up a slender ladder on which a few key scenes are played out. It does seem that the cast members who have to work at that height are a bit uncomfortable. Cleale especially seems to hold on to the ladder’s rungs while showing his bride the scope of their holdings.

For all of its social consciousness (did even the most progressive activists of the 1920s use the phrase "stewardship of the land"?) Pearson’s script pretty successfully avoids peachiness. The treatment of the Texans’ discriminatory attitudes toward those who were simply called Mexicans at the time of the novel is handled openly. It does seem strangely single minded, however, without including at least a hint of questioning of the attitudes of Virginians of the time toward African-Americans despite the fact that the supposedly enlightened bride comes from the Old Dominion.

This is the second of two LaChiusa musicals in what is a sort of mini-festival staged by Signature. Playing at the same time in the smaller of Signatures’ houses, the 99-seat ARK, is his more avant-garde musical "See What I Wanna See." Both continue through the end of the month.

<lst>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, www.PotomacStages.com. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.