BWW Review: True story of the Cardiff Giant in the family friendly musical THE GIANT HOAX from Indieworks Theatre
In the musical Barnum, a song lyric compels you to "join the circus like you wanted to, when you were a kid." In the family friendly new musical The Giant Hoax, a young farm girl named Emily will do just that. She's heard about the Cardiff Giant and wants to see the amazing wonder for herself. Emily runs away from home and will learn some valuable lessons, meet an assortment of colorful characters and sing about "Wonderful Things."
Scenic Designer Theron Wineinger places you into the period immediately when you enter the theater. There's a shiny red and white circus tent. The sign promises the "one and only Cardiff Giant" who is ten feet tall and weighs 2990 pounds. The Albany Daily newspaper headline reads "Scientists Question Authenticity of Giant Man Uncovered in Cardiff."
This musical is inspired by one of the most famous hoaxes in American history. On October 16, 1869, workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. "Stub" Newell found a purported petrified man. Stub (Forest VanDyke) pitched a tent over this discovery and charged twenty five cents for people who wanted to see this colossal human ancestor.
Stub and Emily open the show with a song called "The Cardiff Giant." The entire ensemble is noticeably alive with energy. Emily will see the giant and befriend him. Their duet is "Imaginary Friends." Emily joins Stub's business and learns some tips about salesmanship and the power of carnival barking.
P. T. Barnum took notice of this profitable phenomenon. When his offer to buy the novelty was rebuked, he famously made his own version. (Both versions, incredibly, are on display in museums today.) Kit Goldstein Grant wrote the book, music and lyrics for The Giant Hoax. The storytelling is creative and clear. The songs are pleasantly simple and tuneful. I dare you to see this show and not exit the theater singing "beautiful things/ beautiful things/ believe in these/ beautiful things."
This musical, however, does not pander to its target young people audience. Themes about blind faith, greed and trustworthiness are placed front and center. Barnum (Paul Aguirre) himself makes that very clear. "It's the American way to steal ideas and make them pay." Emily's childlike beliefs and her naiveté will be challenged as she escapes the comforts of home and mother.
The Giant Hoax is memorably staged by Director Christopher Michaels to evoke this particular time period and this bizarrely entertaining story. The creative elements are outstanding and well coordinated. Tyler Carlton Williams' costumes are nicely realistic. Noel Williams' puppet design of the giant creates a sense of wonder and an impression of enormity. The lighting design by Conor Martin Mulligan is superb. The old fashioned shadow effects are stunning.
There are many elements to enjoy in The Giant Hoax. The story is an incredible combination of American chutzpah and American gullibility. People flocked to see this exhibit as proof of the Bible. Genesis 6:4 mentions giants in the earth. Dr. Martin (Yvette Monique Clark) from the Yale School of Paleontology begs to differ. (Ms. Clark is my first choice to play Niecy Nash in her biographical musical.)
Performances are solid across the board. Staci Stout is a believably wide-eyed Emily. She's a smart young lady facing a complicated big world for the first time. Daniel Moser's giant is vividly embodied. The direction and performance of the ensemble is to be commended. Everyone seems to have a purpose to be onstage which enriches the entire viewing experience.
There are quite a few song reprises in The Giant Hoax which unnecessarily elongate this musical. In addition, a few distracting side stories - such as the one about the two other kids - do not seem integral to the main plot. A tighter show would be even more welcome, especially when given a production this thoughtful and imaginative.
The Giant Hoax is running until December 7, 2019 at Theatre Row.