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The Light in the Piazza

New York City Center Encores! presents a fresh, insightful staging of a romantic period musical.

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James D. Gish, Anna Zavelson and Ruthie Ann Miles in a scene from the New York City Center Encores! revival of “The Light in the Piazza” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left”] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

Displaying good timing, TCM showed the film Light in the Piazza (1962) a few days ago.  Based on the Elizabeth Spencer novel (1960), it tells the saccharine story of a beautifully dressed, rich American woman, Margaret Johnson, who is vacationing in Florence, Italy in the early Sixties with her slightly backward, childish 26-year-old daughter, Clara.  The daughter meets a young Italian fellow, Fabrizio, and, after some complications, marries him.  Very pretty story.  Pretty fashions.  Pretty Firenze.

In 2005 Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater produced a musical version with a book by Craig Lucas and a score by Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers’ grandson).  A much lauded production, it led to Victoria Clark winning her first Tony Award.  It, too, was quite beautiful on the expansive Beaumont stage filled with Florence’s artworks moving about the stage.

New York City Center Encores!’s new production of the musical, directed by Chay Yew, stars another Tony Award winner, the sensational Ruthie Ann Miles, as the determined Margaret Johnson with beautiful-voiced Anna Zavelson as a believably three-dimensional Clara.

Anna Zavelson and James D. Gish in a scene from the New York City Center Encores! revival of “The Light in the Piazza” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The Encores! production is more down-to-earth than either the film or the original Lincoln Center production and more satisfying as a human drama.  There’s no stinting on humor, but the characters’ formerly trivial problems now seem more worthy of our attention.

During the moody overture—the great Rob Berman conducting the Encores! Orchestra—dancers perform a balletic prelude, choreographed by Parker Esse.  The ensemble members woo each other with soft partnering and charming gestures until, at the end of the overture the anonymous lovers part and depart.

Miles appears walking through the colonnaded set designed by Clint Ramos and Miguel Urbino ruminating about the sometimes boring beauties of Florence (“Statues and Stories”).  (The design also includes moveable frames that evoked buildings, a sketchy skyline including the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo, plus sculptures flown in and out.)

James D. Gish, Anna Zavelson, Ivan Hernandez and Ruthie Ann Miles in a scene from the New York City Center Encores! revival of “The Light in the Piazza” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

She is joined in song by Zavelson’s Clara whose voice blends beautifully with Miles’ as they stroll about the ancient city.  Clara’s wind-blown hat is caught by young Fabrizio Naccarelli (a lithe, expressive James D. Gish) and their fate is sealed.  Fabrizio somehow turns up wherever Clara is until Margaret gives in to the point of meeting the Naccarelli clan for tea.

This musical version of The Light in the Piazza focuses more on Fabrizio’s family than the film to give a more balanced view of romantic love.  Fabrizio’s brother, Giuseppe (Rodd Cyrus, a charming, if married, roué) is married to the passionate Franca (Shereen Ahmed, terrific) on whom he constantly cheats.

Fabrizio’s dad, Signor Naccarelli (Ivan Hernandez, handsome, with a transparently austere facade) is not as fleshed out as in the film but still has a bit of a flirtation with Margaret (“Let’s Walk”).  As his wife, Andréa Burns stands out with her warmth and humor as she translates the Italian language and behavior for the audience.

Shereen Ahmed, Rodd Cyrus and James D. Gish in a scene from the New York City Center Encores! revival of “The Light in the Piazza” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

That the lovers will marry is predestined despite Margaret’s reluctance to reveal Clara’s mental incapacities and the veto of her dreary husband, Roy (an underused, but vivid, Michael Hayden).

Guettel’s score isn’t hummable, but delves into emotional density that reveals the characters’ emotional states while also being character defining.

Clara’s wonder at this foreign land is expressed in “The Beauty Is” and the gentle beginnings of her romance with Fabrizio comes through in “Passeggiata.”  The well-known Italian passionate emotionalism is humorously revealed in “Aiutami” (“Save Me”) when the young lovers’ relationship seems to have collapsed.  Margaret’s troubled marriage is expressed in “Dividing Day” and her total acceptance of her decision to let Clara marry Fabrizio results in the final, sweet anthem, “Fable.”

James D. Gish, Ivan Hernandez, Andréa Burns, Rodd Cyrus and Shereen Ahmed in in a scene from the New York City Center Encores! revival of “The Light in the Piazza” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The entire production, as is usual for Encores!, is first rate.  The ambiance of Florence is created by David Weiner’s lighting and Megumi Katayama’s sound design.  The period perfect costumes and wigs by Linda Cho an d Charles G. LaPointe, respectively, put the audience into this more innocent—technology-free—time.

Is it too soon to hope for a Broadway transfer?

The Light in the Piazza (June 21- 25, 2023)

New York City Center Encores!

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (561 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

1 Comment on The Light in the Piazza

  1. The song is “Dividing Day” not “Dividing Time” and anthem is spelled with an M not a N.

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