It must be in the genes, since Guettel is the son of Mary Rodgers and the grandson of Richard Rodgers. He may want that lineage downplayed when he's reviewed, but he apparently doesn't get away from it when putting a melody together. This is a good thing, of course: Rodgers wrote some of the most passionate music ever to grace a stage, the sort of music that composers can't write today or, more's the pity, are reluctant to write. Perhaps they worry that knuckleheads will dismiss their efforts as retrograde. (This would be along the lines of American Idol's foolish Simon Cowell, who regularly knocks great songs and consequently may be having as deleterious an effect on contemporary writers as he is having on contemporary pop singers.)
In Guettel's Light in the Piazza, which he has orchestrated lushly with music director Ted Sperling, the composer-lyricist doesn't hold himself back. (Bruce Coughlin contributed additional orchestrations.) Having chosen somewhat surprisingly to rework Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella of the same title, it's as if Guettel said to himself, "Broadway has been bereft of soaring melody long enough!" He's written songs of love and longing without simply imitating his grandfather, or anyone else's grandfather; clever and creative, he's structured material that often leaves traditional 32-bar ditties in the dust. He has even found a way to write his own versions of what might be called Richard Rodgers waltzes, and he dapples his and librettist Craig Lucas's adaptation with them.
These melodies are festooned with lyrics that are sometimes lyrical and poetic, sometimes mundane. There's also an abundance of wordless "aah"-ing and "ooh"-ing that doesn't have the lilting effect Guettel seems to be after. In sum, though, his work brightens and burnishes a show that will enchant some audiences while leaving others intrigued but unmoved.
Any resistance to The Light in the Piazza is understandable in that this is not just a love story between a Henry James-ian American girl named Clara (Kelli O'Hara) and an Italian boy named Fabrizio Naccarelli (Matthew Morrison); it's also the tale of Clara's mother, Margaret Johnson (Victoria Clark), who's wondering whether to reveal a secret. What other people don't know upon first meeting Clara is that the young woman was kicked in the head by a pony when she was 10 and will never progress emotionally beyond that tender age.
Although book writer Lucas takes a few liberties with Spencer's elegantly disturbing tale, he generally remains faithful to the outlines of Margaret's dilemma. The sophisticated but perplexed woman's quandaries include: whether to tell the whole truth to the eldest Naccarelli (Mark Harelik) and his bustling brood, how much to advise her hubby Roy (Beau Gravitte) about the romance during her frequent phone calls home to Winston-Salem, and to what degree she should let Clara live her own life. Spencer treats these complex issues with a fiction writer's subtle touches but Lucas cheapens them by initially making Margaret a typical American tourist, only allowing her to demonstrate her intelligence in the tuner's second act.
This problem is compounded by both Clark and Guettel. There's no question that Clark's voice is another example of how glory goes, but the actress faces a few problems. While there's nothing wrong with her resembling the Patricia Routledge of Keeping Up Appearances, she invites quibbles by playing Spencer's more refined Margaret like a stateside Hyacinth Bucket. Perhaps director Bartlett Sher wants it that way; if so, he oughtn't. And Guettel, for all his championship work on the love ditties, doesn't provide Clark with musical material in which to explain her plight early on in the proceedings; the lowdown on Clara's condition and Margaret's challenge in handling comes exclusively though Lucas's flat dialogue until Act II, as noted above.
Since this is Lincoln Center, where production values are almost always superb, Light in the Piazza stuns at first sight and goes on stunning. Michael Yeargan's idea of Florence looms like a marvelous blend of Giorgio de Chirico and Piero Fornasetti. And when Catherine Zuber's period costumes are paraded past the shifting arches and facades under Christopher Akerlind's autumnal lighting, the result is visual music as ravishing as Guettel's actual music.
The entire cast glows in these sumptuous, scrumptious surroundings: Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison, both seeming to glow from within, are lovely lovers; Mark Harelik is suave as the elder Naccarelli; Michael Berresse (under-used here), Sarah Uriarte Berry, and Patti Cohenour are amusing as the other Naccarellis. Their contributions help Guettel almost achieve musical theater glory.