'Giant' and 'Murder Ballads,' musicals that break the mold

Brian d'Arcy James (from left), Kate Baldwin and

Brian d'Arcy James (from left), Kate Baldwin and PJ Griffith star in "Giant." (Credit: Joseph Moran)

Linda Winer

Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer. Linda Winer

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday,

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Musicals, especially musicals on Broadway, just seem to appear. The curtain goes up, when there even is a curtain these days, and we don't need to know anything beyond what appears on the stage. How many workshops, how many brainstorming sessions and out-of-town productions were sweated through before whatever happens finally happens? Who knows? Who cares?

But how instructive it is, in an expectation-smashing way, to meet new musicals along different segments of their journeys. Right now, as Broadway goes through one of those opening-night growth spurts that threatens to obliterate everything beyond Times Square, there are two new Off-Broadway musicals so different that they defy being discussed in the same category. Both have gifted artists telling stories through singing and dancing, of course. But that's about it. Oh, and producers behind both, I suspect, are contemplating what to do next with their babies.

GIANT

At the Public Theater, in the same playhouse I saw "A Chorus Line" begin life, is "Giant," a musical so old-fashioned it feels almost courageous.

Buzz on this epic has been growing as far back as a different staging in Washington, D.C., in 2009, but anticipation really started growing after the Dallas Theater Center premiere. That one clocked in at four hours. The one at the Public is more than three hours and, considering its richness, ambitions and complexity, I wish the thing felt finished.

Writer Sybille Pearson and composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa have taken on Edna Ferber's sprawling 1952 novel about three generations of Texas cattle and oil families. A sprawling novel and even a sprawling movie (especially if you have Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean) can easily engage the imagination on the big screen.

But a sprawling musical, at least this one, loses shape as the saga spreads from 1925 to 1952, hurrying by important questions about the honorability of the Alamo, the racism toward Mexican workers, the benefits of World War II to Big Oil, the poisoning of the noble yet brutal land. All this is meant to fit organically within a dynasty story about three generations and the mismatched but magnetic marriage of Bick, an orphaned rich cattle baron (Brian D'Arcy James), and Leslie, a rich Virginia girl (Kate Baldwin) with pluck and a social conscience.

LaChiusa has always been an audacious and self-challenging musical maverick. This time, that audacity is channeled into writing music that spreads from the big-vista Americana of Aaron Copland and traditional Mexican song forms to '40s jazz and swing and, finally, to torchy ballads and a knotty darkness with the angular breadth of Sondheim. The textures and the variety are remarkable, especially with a luxurious 17-piece orchestra on the upper half of the broad stage. What we miss is the consistency of LaChiusa's voice.

The splendid cast is enormous, with voices (often bilingual) that can sound weathered and tightened by what Bick calls "heartbreak country." Director Michael Greif ("Rent," "Grey Gardens") creates multiple scenes and eras with little more than a water tower, sliding bits of furniture and a scrim that reflects the big changing sky.

D'Arcy James finds the smart but conflicted heart amid the oblivious cruelties in Bick; Baldwin wears Leslie's finery, adventure and compassion with equal conviction; and PJ Griffith has a slithery appeal as the poor cowboy who strikes it rich. The stage brims with cowhands, vaqueros, committed and befuddled womenfolk and rebellious young folk.

Pearson makes sure we know everyone's story, which makes the first act feel generous and causes the second act to feel lost and overstuffed. Ultimately, the show is all too much and not quite enough.

"Giant," Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org

MURDER BALLAD

Uptown and across the world is "Murder Ballad," a sultry 90-minute, four-character spree of a noir musical. Manhattan Theatre Club, which has not been using its black-box Stage II for years, tosses away its sometimes dowdy image with the first piece in a new $5-million, three-year program devoted to new work -- and $30 tickets.

The space has been transformed, radically, into an environmental downtown bar with a pool table, cabaret seating and, at a raised stage on the side, a rock band. Four of the city's most seductive, high-achievement artists -- Karen Olivo ("In the Heights" and "West Side Story"), Will Swenson (Berger in "Hair" and a lead cross-dresser in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"), Rebecca Naomi Jones ("Passing Strange," "American Idiot") and John Ellison Conlee ("The Full Monty") prowl and growl around the young New York scene and over the furniture in competitive love stories that culminate, but not too soon, in a murder.

Julia Jordan, who has won both the Kleban and the Jonathan Larson awards for new musicals, created and wrote the lyrics for the music-theater-dance piece, with music by pop songwriter Juliana Nash. Essentially, this is a sung-through song cycle with short, abrupt, red-lit scenes about two downtown beauties (Olivo and Swenson) who break up. She marries the good bear of a guy (Conlee), who turns from poetry to planning college funds for their young daughter. Guess who gets bored.

Meanwhile, Jones plays both a character and kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the sex and catastrophe to the hesitations of big-beat rhythms. Some of the music sounds like high-level noodling, but the little show has a surprising kick.

Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St.; 212-581-1212; manhattantheatreclub.com