The stakes were considerable on the night of January 27, 2012, at the opening of the Dallas Theater Center’s musical Giant, a co-production with the prestigious Public Theater in New York City, based on Edna Ferber’s classic novel of old cattle versus new oil in mid-twentieth century Texas.
The show was the biggest gamble yet for DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty, who joined the company in 2007 and–- as we wrote last year --has worked to raise its local, statewide and national profile.
The critical verdicts for Giant were all over the map. The Dallas Morning News raved that it was "a big step forward for the American musical." The Dallas Observer fulminated that "the music in this musical is tuneless and monotonous." (The music and lyrics were by Michael John LaChiusa. The show's book was by Sybille Pearson.)
Yet the production, which ran through February, struck a chord with audiences; according to Moriarty, it was among the highest-grossing in the company's history. The artistic director also said that this quintessentially Texas story attracted a number of new donors to the DTC, who helped pony up the money for the show's larger-than-usual budget. (The numbers are fuzzy, since costs were shared with the Public, but the DTC's share was north of $1 million.)
Now, ten months later, comes some especially sweet icing on the cake: On November 13, Giant-–slightly retooled from its Dallas run, and featuring a new actor in the role of Bick Benedict, but otherwise the same-–opened at the Public. While most of the reviews were respectfully mixed, including Ben Brantley's in the New York Times , there were also a couple of unqualified raves . The run was extended through mid-December. There is now scuttle about a possible Broadway transfer.
All of which reflects quite nicely back on the Dallas Theater Center, which until recently had been regarded as a much less exciting and adventurous company than Houston's celebrated Alley Theatre.
"The difference between four years ago and now is tangible," said Moriarty, who was in the audience for Giant's New York premiere. "The company is part of the national conversation in a way that we weren’t before."
(Giant, for the record, originated a few years ago at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, where it had a running time of four-plus hours. Moriarty and the Public struck upon the plan to together finance and workshop this new version, which currently runs about three hours.)
Giant is actually the second new musical in as many years to first open in Dallas before making its way to New York-- Lysistrata Jones premiered in the Big D in 2009 under the title of Give It Up! before making its way to well-reviewed, if commercially disappointing Broadway run in 2011 and early 2012.
More than impressing the New York tastemakers with new work, though, the company also continues to do solid work for local audiences: The 2011-2012 season finished on an especially high note, with a moving and intimate mounting of Geoffrey Nauffts Next Fall and a glittery revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technical Dreamcoat.
As with any ambitious, rising organization, there are inevitable gripes and criticisms (the cast of Giant, for instance, was almost entirely imported from New York, which rubbed some local actors the wrong way.) But most observers–-even those who didn't especially cotton to Giant--seem to agree that DTC is on the right track to further raise its profile and possibly even win the prestigious Regional Theatre Tony Award, handed out to just one company each year. (The Alley was the last Texas company to nab the prize, in 1996.)
"A collaboration with a large, entrenched New York theater like the Public on a show about Texas--that makes total sense," said Liz Johnstone, a theater critic for D Magazine who panned Giant in its Dallas run. "Taking these risks could pay off for them."
Moriarty prefers to remain diplomatic about questions of awards–-and the larger question of whether the DTC might now be the most important theater company in Texas.
"As you look throughout the whole state, there is no single criteria by which you could categorize that," he said.
But make no mistake, Moriarty is going to continue to think in big, national terms. Next July the DTC will host the world premiere of yet another new musical that sounds like it could be Broadway-bound: Fly, written by Bill Sherman (who won a Tony for his orchestrations on In the Heights ) and rising star playwright Rajiv Joseph ( Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo ). Based on J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, it might be the show that allows Dallas Theater Center to truly soar.