by Gordin & Christiano
An adventure awaits you at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the Lincoln Center production of Adam Guettel’s new musical The Light in the Piazza will transport you to Italy during the summer of 1953. The recipient of 11 Drama Desk nominations including one for Best New Musical, the show, with a book by Craig Lucas (Reckless) and as directed by Bartlett Sher, is a serious story with heart about real people, dealing with delicate human emotions, a rarity amongst musicals today. Although not perfect, it’s an illuminating tale with sophisticated music that actually makes a sincere attempt to move and enlighten us.
The book by Mr. Lucas, who is well known for his witty off-beat tales, is based on a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer that was made into a 1962 film which was most notable for a luminous Yvette Mimieux.
The story focuses on two women from North Carolina: a mother, Margaret Johnson (Victoria Clark), and her 26-year-old daughter Clara (Kelli O’Hara), as they travel through Italy, where Margaret had honeymooned with her husband Roy, who is absent on this trip. While in Florence, Clara’s hat is blown away by a sudden gust of wind and, as fate would have it, into the hands of handsome 20-year-old Italian Fabrizio (Matthew Morrison), who speaks no English. Clara speaks not a word of Italian, but the two fall in love at first sight.
The tale is ultimately Margaret’s journey as she struggles with the hidden truth that when Clara was 10, she was struck in the head by a pony, and doctors have said that the blow has stunted her emotional and intellectual development. Clara has the mind of a child in the body of a woman, but the problem is not obvious, especially to an Italian who doesn’t speak English.
Fabrizio is the youngest son of Signor Naccarelli (Mark Harelik), a successful Florentine haberdasher. His family – which consists of his loving wife (Patti Cohenour), his elder philandering son Giuseppe (Michael Berresse) and Giuseppe’s forlorn wife Franca (Sarah Uriarte Berry) – unaware of Clara’s handicap, becomes enchanted with her. Margaret, realizing the possible complications from a marriage between her daughter and their son, attempts to enlighten them, but ultimately fails. Instead, she takes Clara off to Rome only to return to Florence, where the two young lovers become engaged.
Victoria Clark as the pragmatic Margaret, who secretly longs for Clara to have a chance at happiness, delivers a finely etched complex performance that is stunningly affecting, without being sentimental. Her singing is breathtaking. Two of her songs, “Dividing Day” and the finale “Fable” are heartbreakingly beautiful. Her performance is simply amazing and a joy to behold. I was in awe.
Kelli O’Hara is lovely as Clara and has a beautiful soprano voice. The character as written and directed, however, doesn’t seem as backward as indicated, which gives credence to the possibility that the doctors were wrong and Clara’s lack of development could be due to overprotective parents.
The entire cast is outstanding. They are accomplished singers as well as impressive actors. Matthew Morrison makes for a wonderfully romantic and impulsive lover. Mark Harelik as his father is strong and charming. His duet, “Let’s Walk,” with Ms. Clark, is a surefire hit.
The music by Adam Guettel, a grandson of Richard Rogers, is sumptuous, tending toward operatic and performed by a full orchestra with a cello, harp, guitar and mandolin adding richness and flavor. It is lovely to listen to, but contributes little in the way of strong dramatic impact. His lyrics for the most part are less successful, but he is clearly a gifted composer. I suspect there are more memorable scores in his future and his work here may even be the finest this season.
Bartlett Sher’s production is an elegant work of art. The stunning sets by Michael Yeargan are the best use of the space I have ever seen in the Vivian Beaumont. The lighting by Christopher Akerlind gives a rich, romantic feel while adding to the imposing reality of the sets. Catherine Zuber’s period costumes are fabulous.
How refreshing: The Light in the Piazza is an original musical with heart about real people. No gimmicks here, just the real thing.
The Light in the Piazza opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre 150 West 65th Street on April 18, 2005. Tickets are available at the Lincoln Center box office, by calling Tele-charge at 212-239-6200 or by visiting http://www.lct.org
Gordin & Christiano are theatre critics. Barry Gordin is an internationally renowned photographer. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOriginally Published in Dan’s Papers May 6, 2005.