Monday, December 17, 2012

I Could Go On Singing: Giant and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Brian D’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin in Giant at the Public Theater in New York (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

Considering that Show Boat is one of the most phenomenally successful musicals in history, it’s surprising that it’s taken nearly a century for someone to get around to adapting another Edna Ferber novel to the musical stage. Like Show Boat, Giant, which she wrote in 1952, is a vivid soap opera that sprawls across two generations. Ferber has been out of fashion for a long time (though her books are still highly readable); most people who are familiar with the material would know it through the famous 1956 movie version, directed by George Stevens and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and, in a posthumous performance, James Dean. The giant of the title is Texas, where Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Hudson) brings his Virginia bride Leslie (Taylor) to live on his enormous ranch, Reata: he has to get used to her independent-mindedness and her social conscience and she has to get used to the ways of Texas, which is crass, self-adoring, patriarchal and racist.

The movie, which runs on for three hours and twenty minutes, is uneven in every conceivable way: visually, in the storytelling and in the acting. Stevens was past his prime when he made it; he’d begun to equate length and subject matter with prestige, in that distinctly Hollywood way. (Giant has approximately the same running time as a double bill of his two best pictures, Alice Adams and the Astaire-Rogers classic Swing Time, both of which he made in the mid-thirties.) Still, like the book on which it’s based, Giant is very absorbing, and even though it’s a mammoth Oscar-boosting extravaganza, it doesn’t try very hard to convince you that it’s an important drama. By contrast, the musical, which began at the Dallas Theater Center and made it to New York’s Public Theater last month, is more inflated than the loudest-crowing, most self-righteous Texan in its cast of characters. Moreover, it’s something that you could never call a single one of those Texans: it’s a twenty-four-carat phony.

The blame belongs less with the book writer, Sybille Pearson, than with the songwriter, Michael John LaChiusa, and the director, Michael Greif. There’s barely a book at all; the actors almost never stop singing. The most deleterious effect of through-sung European imports like Les Misérables is that the writers of many American musicals seem to have stopped believing in the balance of dramatic and musical text and fear that if you go five minutes without a new song you’ve dropped the ball. So Giant has fifteen numbers in act one and ten in act two – and my God, they are wretched. That LaChiusa has such a successful career is a mystery to me. His bio in the playbill for Giant lists thirteen scores (not counting operas), including The Wild Party (the one that made it to Broadway, with George C. Wolfe directing, not the far superior one by Andrew Lippa) and Marie Christine, which is based on Medea. But his lyrics are insufferably banal, his music lacks melody, and his songs don’t work dramatically. The great Broadway songwriters used to build a strong musical and lyrical base for the stylized emotions of the characters; all LaChiusa knows how to do is pour on the melodrama like syrup on waffles. The songs in Giant have subjects – the Alamo (“My Texas”), the struggle of Mexican Americans (“There Is a Child”), broken dreams of youth (“Place in the World”), and so forth – but they substitute inspirational uplift and sentimentality for ideas. LaChiusa is so resolutely plain-spoken that he makes Oscar Hammerstein look like W.S. Gilbert, and if he rhymes every now and then you think it’s by accident. You couldn’t even call him a hack because he doesn’t know what any songwriting hack knows: how to think theatrically. The songs he throws at the principals – Brian D’Arcy James as Bick, Kate Baldwin as Leslie, PJ Griffith as Jett Rink (the James Dean role), the ranch hand who becomes an oil millionaire, Michele Pawk as Bick’s possessive sister Luz – are roughly the musical equivalent of extended screeches rendered with a fake country-rock twang. And Greif has directed them to perform them as if they were devouring big plates of barbecue.

Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the 1956 film, Gian
Almost every number is self-defining for one character or another; they have to use the songs to tell us who they are because they have so little dialogue for that (or any other) purpose. James isn’t too bad, considering that the only two emotions he gets to relay are exuberant and pissed-off. Baldwin, a gifted musical-theatre artist who was a knockout in Warren Carlyle’s 2009 Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow, makes an impression as a southern flapper with marcelled red hair in the early scenes (the musical begins in 1925, then leaps to 1941 in the middle of act one) but she gets to show so few sides that you quickly grow tired of her. Jett’s role doesn’t make much sense, so Griffith is stuck. Bick introduces him to Leslie as a young man who’s sore at the world, but his songs don’t fit that descriptive, and then abruptly, when he gets some cash, he turns into a racist monster. (To be fair, in the movie Jett makes the same unexplained transition, though Dean’s performance has so many wonderful things in it that they compensate for the inconsistency.) And though there isn’t much scenery, Pawk manages to chew big hunks of it. Since I knew Luz gets thrown by Leslie’s horse and dies early on in the story, I was looking forward to some relief from Pawk’s awful acting, but I was deceived; she comes back as a goddamn ghost to sing duets with her brother.

It might have made some sense to turn Giant into a musical in the fifties or sixties, when it was still feasible to mount big-boned Broadway shows (and when someone else besides Michael LaChiusa would have supplied the tunes). In the twenty-first century it’s a folly. There are twenty-two actors on stage and fifteen musicians above and behind it, but Allen Moyer’s set – a double cyclorama with skies projected on it, a moving water tower and in the second act a row of oil derricks upstage – doesn’t convey anything resembling the immensity and color of the novel’s setting, and Greif’s staging, like most of Alex Sanchez’s choreography, is stiff and restrained. The show does come briefly to life early in act two, when a fireball named Miguel Cervantes leads Mackenzie Mauzy (as Bick and Leslie’s daughter, Lil Luz) and Jon Fletcher (as her beau, Bobby Dietz) in a trio called “Jump.” Cervantes plays Angel Obregon Jr. (he doubles as the character’s father), the Hispanic best friend of Lil Luz’s brother Jordy. (Jordy’s the character who carries the dead weight of the show’s message, when he defies his father by insisting on going to medical school rather than taking over the ranch, working with the poor, and marrying a young woman of color.) Angel isn’t around very long; he goes off to fight in the Second World War and comes home in a box. But before he does he performs this number about jumping out of your square, and for three or four minutes the whole damn show follows suit. Even LaChiusa gets smart for once: this is one song that actually develops theme and character rather than just monologuing.

Heather Ayers, Ken Barnett and Jefferson Mays in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Nowhere in the credits for the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which premiered at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, do you see Kind Hearts and Coronets listed as the source material for Robert Freedman’s book. It’s a very weird omission, not just because the show is obviously based on the Robert Hamer-John Dighton screenplay for the 1949 movie (which Hamer filmed) but because it’s rather a famous British black comedy. In it Dennis Price plays a resourceful fellow who, spurred on by the love of a seductive young woman (Joan Greenwood, intoning her lines with her trademark feline sibilance), murders all the heirs of a titled family who stand between him and the family fortune. In the movie they’re all played by Alec Guinness (one in drag), who’s so marvelous that even if the movie itself weren’t so devilishly well written it would still be a classic. In the musical Jefferson Mays plays them all the family name is D’ysquith, and except for the protagonist, Monty, there are nine of them in all – and he’s great fun to watch. By comparison Ken Barnett, who plays Monty, is a tad dull, though he sings pleasantly.

The musical is set in 1909, and the director, Darko Tresnjak (Hartford Stage’s artistic director), stages it on and in front of an ingenious parody of a music-hall stage designed by Alexander Dodge and lit by Philip Rosenberg. There’s a compact cast of eight hard-working players, decked out in scrumptious outfits by Linda Cho, and Tresnjak and the choreographer, Peggy Hickey, dream up a lot of clever staging for them. The show’s biggest problem is that – once again – it contains far too many songs, twenty in all, and they begin to wear you down. Steven Lutvak wrote the music and he and Freedman collaborated on the lyrics, which in most cases are better than the tunes. (Two exceptions: “Inside Out” and “The Last One You’d Expect,” the first-act finale, are very nice ballads.) Lyrically and in the staging, the high point of the production comes in act two, in “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” where Monty struggles to keep Sibella (Lisa O’Hare), his married mistress (the Greenwood role), and Phoebe D’Ysquith (Chilina Kennedy), whom he falls for after he’s made her a widow, away from each other. The musical is mostly quite enjoyable, and when you think about it afterwards the best parts are the ones that linger in the memory.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes forThe Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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