“A modern, old-fashioned romantic musical”
Throughout his career, Adam Guettel has suffered the great misfortune of being Richard Rodgers's grandson. He is abundantly talented in his own right, but everything he produces is inevitably measured against some of the greatest musicals of all time. The Light in the Piazza ought to change all that. The show, which won six Tony Awards in 2005 and now receives its European premiere, is a work that confidently strides across the boundary separating potential from achievement.
The story, adapted from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, is simplicity itself: Clara, an impulsive young American, is holidaying in Florence with her mother. She falls for a local boy named Fabrizio, and they plan to get married. Then it's off. Then it's on again. The interest lies in the subtle range of emotional shading Guettel brings to the score. The early scenes turn on a sumptuous sequence of melodies that bear the genetic imprint of Rodgers; yet the underlying harmonies darken as the reasons for Clara's naivety become clear.
Paul Kerryson's production exudes a Fellini-esque sense of Italian chic, while George Souglides's design suggests the enigmatic vaults and vistas of Giorgio de Chirico. Caroline Sheen gives a radiant but troubled performance as Clara, overprotected and prone to spasms of anxiety. Matt Rawle is a sensitive, ardently sung Fabrizio. But the show really belongs to the operatically scaled mezzo of Lucy Schaufer's Mother who, in finally summoning the courage to let her daughter go, achieves a form of liberation for herself.
Guettel's achievement has been to create a modern, old-fashioned romantic musical that uses its head as well as its heart. The sensibility may be his grandfather's, but the voice is entirely his own.
“Original and daring”
It is hard to say whether The Light in the Piazza is a tentative but significant step forward for the endangered American musical or a noble failure. Either way, it is head and shoulders above its cohort (Dessa Rose, Spamalot, and that lot), which, admittedly, isn’t saying all that much. What can be said with total assurance is that anyone who cares about the rather uncertain future of this truly American genre should – must – see the show, think and worry about it, and reach his or her own conclusions.
For starters, Lincoln Center Theater’s production is breath-taking. Not since Ralph Funicello’s scenery for this same theater’s Henry IV has there been décor like Michael Yeargan’s for Piazza. You do not merely (merely?) feel transported to Florence and Rome; you are initiated into the mysterious essence of those fabled cities. And thanks to Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, you also ingest a sense of timelessness within passing time—of the fateful resonance of a momentous moment. You lose the feeling of stage and scenery; you are actually, acutely there: in that music, those words, that happening.
I have not read Elizabeth Spencer’s novel on which the show is based, and have, except for Yvette Mimieux and Rossano Brazzi, rather forgotten the movie. But here is the story. An American mother, Margaret, in youthful middle age, and her young, and younger acting, daughter, 26-year-old Clara, are on a visit to Italy in 1953, where Margaret and her husband, Roy, honeymooned once, a spent love ago. Pretty Clara, owing to a kick in the head by a pony when she was 10, has become mentally beclouded: Her behavior lags behind her woman’s body. But it’s something that does not obviously show, or prevent handsome, 20-year-old Fabrizio, son of Signor Naccarelli, a Florentine haberdasher, from falling in love with her on first piazza sight.
The Naccarelli family—which also comprises the compassionate Signora, the philandering elder son, Giuseppe, and Franca, his barren and resentful but loving wife—takes to Clara. But Margaret, foreseeing the consequences to both Clara and the Naccarellis if marriage should ensue, tries, without quite being able to enlighten them why, to prevent a wedding. So, too, if only by telephone, does Roy. It is almost a case of Montagues and Capulets—and that’s as much as I can tell you here.
Craig Lucas’s book seems perfectly adequate to me, but the emphasis must be on Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics. Those lyrics, I’m afraid, are a bit self-consciously poeticizing, a trifle arcanely oblique. But the music, though fluctuating between the Sondheimesque and offbeat but still Broadwayish and the art-songlike and even operatic, is steadily absorbing, even if only intermittently melodious. One duet, “Let’s Walk,” is an unqualified hit, but the rest, without fully cohering, is also arresting. It is—to offer a classical parallel—as if a world weaned on Brahms were suddenly confronted with Schoenberg. Ted Sperling and Guettel’s jaunty orchestrations add to the slightly disorienting but wholly fascinating harmonies and instrumentation. Bartlett Sher’s direction, making imaginative and compelling use of stage space, creates cinematically panoramic fluidity.
The entire cast acts, sings, coexists with uniform ensemble efficiency. Kelli O’Hara may lack Clara’s ambiguous charisma and drop-dead looks, but she sings well and comports herself convincingly. Victoria Clark’s Margaret is, quite simply, superb; if not exactly Rossano Brazzi, Mark Harelik is a resourceful and fascinating Signor Naccarelli. Matthew Morrison is a fine-looking and ingenuous Fabrizio, Michael Berresse a suitably caddish yet likable Giuseppe, Sarah Uriarte Berry a perky and touching Franca, Patti Cohenour an understatedly winning Signora, and Beau Gravitte a sympathetically unsympathetic Roy. The use of much unsurtitled Italian, and even a goodly bit of ecclesiastic Latin, may be a mite excessive, but it, too, is original and daring, like everything else that lights up this Light in the Piazza.
Leicester has been itching to see Paul Kerryson direct a musical at Curve and this one is brilliant and beautiful in scale and ambition. It’s a bit like a draught of Keats’ ‘beaker full of the warm south’, a stunning depiction of Florence that exploits Curve’s space and technology to give a constantly shifting perspective on the city’s arcades, galleries and fifties street life.
The straw hat lifted on the breeze from the head of Clara, a young girl visiting Florence for the first time with her possessive mother, Margaret, triggers the encounter with Fabrizio and mutual love at first sight. Matt Rawle is a delight as Fabrizio, pouring out his joy in a great comic aria in his father’s tie shop.
You don’t need to understand the language to interpret what his breast-beating torrent of Italian is all about. This musical is a hymn of praise to the fragility and marvel of love. Clara, exquisitely played by Caroline Sheen in moods that range from innocence and rapture to temper and hysteria, produces heart-stopping moments of stillness.
Lucy Schaufer gives a fine, operatic performance as the tightly coiled Margaret, who finds eventual release from the secret that burdens her. Florence comes to life in the frictions of the Naccarelli family, the parade of Florentines, the very light in the piazza about which Clara sings so wonderingly.
The music defies convention. It jumps up and down the scale as if at random, and fragmentation can turn to lyricism in an instant. Awesome.