Let me begin by saying that Giant most definitely IS a musical.  I say this because its composer-lyricist, Michael John LaChiusa, made it very clear in a 2005 article in Opera News that most of what masquerades on Broadway as The Musical is nothing but:

I’m old-school about what makes a musical a musical.  Lyric, music, libretto, choreography — all work in equal parts to spin out the drama.  And the best of craftmanship is employed, craftsmanship that nods to the past and leans to the future: a great song is something we think we’ve heard before but haven’t.  A real musical makes perfect symmetry out of the muck of diverse and eclectic sources, and transcends those sources.  A real musical is organic in all its parts.  It’s equal parts intelligence and heart.  It can never be realistic theater, only realistic in its humanity.  But who wants that in 2005?  We’re into reality programming, after all — which is hardly real at all.  It’s post-America America: we want faux!

Wow, did he get Slavoj Žižek to write that last bit?  How terribly Lacanian.

Anyway, Giant at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, is ostensibly based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name, but I wouldn’t really know about that.  I never read the book myself, but I did see the movie (another Žižekian conceit, although he claims only to read the DVD covers…)  Luckily for me though, Jonathan Yardley did read the book, and wrote about reading it, and says that the movie is way better anyway, so I feel quite content.

The musical retains the film’s epic proportions (it runs a full 4 hours), but whereas the film has enough room for the material’s Big Messages, the musical is overstuffed, as though the authors were desperately trying to encapsulate all the important moments and ideas, and simply had to stop short at the end of hour number 4.

Giant seems like good enough material for a musical, and the authors mostly do right by it.  LaChiusa’s score is really good, as are Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman’s orchestrations, despite some pervasive sound problems resulting from the orchestra — yes a real Orchestra! — playing above the stage.  The form, however, is a bit bland — we progress from scene to scene, song to song, without any larger dramatic or thematic connections emerging from the journey.

In fact, I think this show is too much Musical, and not enough Giant.  Also, I didn’t appreciate the writers de-clawing Bick of some of his less attractive characteristics; his interaction with Leslie and the Mexicans upon his arrival at Reata takes on a markedly different tone than it does in the film.  I also didn’t really care for the re-scoring of Jett as a wacko rather than a weirdo, but I suppose it works, or rather would have, had we been allowed to see a real character arch from scene to scene, rather than just an abrupt change in demeanor an hour later.

And now my real gripe, addressed to the Signature Theater, of Alrington, VA: I know it’s a long show and all, but you’ve got to allow me at least enough time to go to the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee, AND drink it before you herd me back into the theater.  And then, when I sneak my coffee to my seat, as I simply have to if I don’t want to waste my $2, please don’t send your obnoxious, geriatric “Volunteer” patrol to advise me to “be careful” with it.  I know I’m supposed to be careful, idiot.

Anyway, it was a good show with good songs, good acting and singing, etc. but I think the authors could re-format the piece, stretching out certain scenes and ideas, and cutting others altogether.  The point of a Musical, as Mr. LaChiusa so aptly pointed out, is to transcend its source material, not follow it slavishly.  Show Boat is a four hour musical (also based on an Edna Ferber novel) but it’s not too long.  Neither is this show, but I think that with a little re-working, we could leave the theater feeling like we got even more than our 4 hour’s worth.