By:Sandi Durell

Who can forget Edna Ferber’s classic novel, and especially its adaptation into the monumental film with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and the wickedly wild James Dean as the story of the Texas Benedict clan unfolds. Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party, Marie Christine), has ambitiously written both music and lyrics, with book by Sybille Pearson, making this stage version at the Public Theater a candidate for a monumental musical if it can be tweaked and molded into a less than 3 hour, 15 minute production.

  • The score is soaring and many a time I had the feeling I knew what it must have felt like hearing “Carousel” or “Oklahoma” for the first time. Ambitiously brilliant.

Expertly directed by Michael Greif, the saga turns from scene to scene, literally, on a turntable set conceived by Allen Moyer, on a two tier stage, the upper level holding a 17 pc. Orchestra (Chris Fenwick, musical director) behind a scrim “sky” with exquisite lighting by Kenneth Posner. Everything gives the illusion of bigger – as it should be in Texas! LaChuisa’s score is a compilation of a variety of musical genres including big band, jazz, blues, country, Latin – a potpourri that is astonishing.

When Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Brian d’Arcy James) leaves his beloved ranch to purchase a horse in Virginia, he falls head over heels in love with the owner’s daughter, the beautiful sensitive Leslie (Kate Baldwin), marrying her and bringing her back to his other love, the 2.5 million acre ranch that is his family heirloom. It is quickly evident to Leslie that not only is she in competition with the land, but is pitted against Jordan’s older sister Luz (Michele Pawk), who runs the house, as Leslie insistently maintains her free thinking independence. She is appalled at the squalor of the Mexican families who live on the Benedict owned lands and the lack of caring, highlighting the issues of racism and bigotry in the 20s thru 50s.

The complicated story of love, lust, ranching and oil all come together in flashbacks within flashbacks. Jett Rink (PJ Griffith) takes on the role that James Dean played in the 1956 movie, his tight, tight pants giving the effect of having been painted on, as he exudes sex, making a play early on for Leslie.

Uncle “Bawley” Benedict (John Dossett) and Vashti Hake Snythe (Katie Thompson) are two exciting highlights in this production, Dossett giving an earthy rendering of emotions in a duet with Bick,“Place in the World,” while Thompson (in love with Bick since childhood and settling for a cowhand) has a vocal expertise that shines especially in “Midnight Blues,” a duet with Leslie. “Topsy-Turvey” (Leslie & Bick) gives good insight into Leslie’s need to let loose and change her life.

Baldwin looks stunning (in costumes by Jeff Mahshie and red wigs by David Brian Brown), her soprano crystalline. James sings beautifully but I kept seeing Bick as taller with a more testosterone appearance. I actually had the thought that a James Barbour would fill those boots to a T.

The young Benedicts are played by Bobby Steggert (and I wished there was more of him) as the timid Jordy Jr., who is a great disappointment to his father, and Mackenzie Mauzy as Lil Luz, his wild sister. Jordy Jr.’s love interest, the Mexican girl Juana, whom he marries, is not allowed to stay at the Texas hotel empire owned by now oil magnate Jett Rink, is played by Natalie Cortez.

Miguel Cervantes gives a hot performance as Angel in “Jump.” The entire cast is exceptional and noteworthy.

It’s a heavy duty score and book that needs to be reigned in so that this colossal production can go on to become the Giant it is meant to be.

Photo: Joan Marcus