Composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and librettist Craig Lucas are knowledgeable professionals who understand the old-fashioned rules of musical theater construction -- rules created in large part by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, to whom homage is paid in the show's thoroughly grounded characters, strong dialogue, and rich score. There's no pseudo-opera here, no overblown musical effects disguising glaring weaknesses. The Light in the Piazza is a literate piece on a human scale, a work of proportion and grace with a cast of 12 and a small but lush orchestra consisting of violin, cello, acoustic bass, harp, and a real piano.
Guettel and Lucas started with strong source material: a 1959 novella by Elizabeth Spencer that was successfully Hollywoodized in the 1960s. Set mostly in Florence, Italy in 1953, it's sort of a fairy tale romance about an attractive, twentysomething American woman who always will be 12 mentally. Carefully nurtured by her mother, Margaret, Clara Johnson is more than a child but less than an adult, old enough to fall in love but perhaps too young to understand its complexities and obligations. When Clara is wooed by Fabrizio, a 20-year-old Italian boy, Margaret is torn between her protective instincts and the dream of seeing her daughter happy and fulfilled. Her dilemma is the focus of the musical.
There's no villain in The Light in the Piazza; all of the characters are affable and charming. The central imagery suggested by the title is warmly realized in Michael Yeargan's airy scenic design, Christopher Akerlind's lighting, and Catherine Zuber's summery costumes, as well as in the vein of comedy that Lucas weaves through the book without ever resorting to gags. Wisely, melodrama is avoided here; the soft, late-lingering summer light of Tuscany is present, as is the light of love that animates the heart and soul.
The shadows are emotional ones, expressed largely in penetrating music with challenging vocal leaps, complex ensemble lines, fascinating rhythms, and melodies that often soar. Guettel's sense of drama is dead-on, as he previously demonstrated in Floyd Collins. It flourishes in the ensemble number "Passegiata" (a waltz in the Richard Rodgers tradition), the comical Act II opener "Aiutami" and the "Octet" that soon follows, and in Clara's dark "Tirade." The composer can write pretty ballads, too, among them "The Beauty Is" for Clara and "Love to Me" for Fabrizio, but he does not craft the kind of tunes that are likely to be hummed by audience members as they exit the theater. This, along with the work's modest scale, may well restrict its commercial potential.
The winning cast features Celia Keenan-Bolger and Wayne Wilcox as the attractive, strong-voiced young lovers; Mark Harelik and Patti Cohenour as Fabrizio's elegant and sympathetic parents; and Victoria Clark, whose singing is wonderfully crisp and clear as she perfectly balances hope, rue, and humor in the role of Margaret. Bartlett Sher of the Intiman Theatre is the show's deft director and Marcela Lorca is the choreographer (but this isn't a dance show). Ted Sperling is the astute musical director and, with Guettel, co-orchestrator.
The Light in the Piazza opened at the Goodman Theatre on January 20 and runs through February 15. It may have an extended life in not-for-profit theaters and light opera companies, and it certainly deserves at least that. Intelligent audiences will take this show to heart if producers are daring enough to mount it.
[To access Lori Fromowitz's June 2003 review of The Light in the Piazza at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, click here]