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The Light in the Piazza

Celia Keenan-Bolger in The Light in the Piazza
(Photo © Chris Bennion)
Despite the hype surrounding the Intiman Theatre's first-ever musical (and a world premiere at that), The Light in the Piazza rejects the spectacle of a Ziegfeld chorus line or seventy-six trombones in favor of understatement. This is a charming production of a developing piece with exceptional merit.

Composer and lyricist Adam Guettel looked for a story that could sound like love and found it in Elizabeth Spencer's novella of the same title, set in 1950s Italy. Her story is the basis for author/director Craig Lucas's book, and the show has been scored with the anticipatory tones of romance by Guettel. Although Guettel may be closer in his reflective style to Sondheim than to any other major musical theater composer, his lyrics and music defy placement in any one genre and set him apart as a unique voice. The piano and string instrumentals here are occasionally reminiscent of the gentle strains of a Monteverdi score, and the vocal numbers blend so many styles that they create a new sound altogether.

Guettel's music is complex but unpretentious. Perhaps the most striking achievement of the piece is that the songs are such a natural part of its tapestry; the collaboration between Guettel and Lucas has resulted in an extraordinarily organic musical. When the characters sing, they tend to do so gently and expressively because the moment calls for singing, not because the song happens to be sitting there. The play has no "show-stoppers," so the story rarely needs to stop for music. Rather, the lyrics are often vital character indicators that carry the book with them.

Lucas's book is a witty, well-structured tale on romantic and familial love. Although the piece has several plot lines, the most prominent love story is between the American tourist Clara (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and the native Florentine Fabrizio (Steven Pasquale). The couple's future is at the mercy of Clara's concerned mother, Margaret (Victoria Clark), who lets us know from the beginning that the proceeding story is dependant upon her choices. The anxious keeper of a potentially life-shattering secret about her daughter, Margaret is also the character with the most dynamic arc. Fortunately for the production, Victoria Clark knows how to hold a stage; her beautifully sung "Dividing Day," about a seemingly empty marriage, contrasts with Keenan-Bolger's equally lovely, unadulterated love song "The Light in the Piazza."

Margaret's wariness may also be contrasted with the feelings of Fabrizio's family, who at first vigorously encourage the blossoming romance. Fabrizio's mother, Signora Naccarelli (Patti Cohenour), even confesses amusingly in song to engendering suspicion in order to stir up passion between the lovers. The family -- particularly Signor Naccarrelli, slickly played by Mark Harelik -- is taken with Clara's uninhibited expression and the newfound love that glows in the midst of the family's own marital difficulties.

Mark Harelik and Victoria Clark in The Light in the Piazza
(Photo © Chris Bennion)
It's easy to feel like a gauche American while watching the ponytailed Clara surrounded by these beautifully coiffed Italians, especially since some of their dialogue is never translated into English. That the characters must sometimes find other ways to communicate -- and sometimes fail -- is a truly theatrical device. We get a small glimpse of what it must have been like many years ago to watch the Yiddish-speaking Jacob Adler play the Merchant of Venice on Broadway for a largely English-speaking cast and audience.

The physical dialogue that sometimes substitutes for language is a perfect example of the understatement that is one of the piece's best qualities; at the same time, this kind of thing will make a delicate process of attending to some of the production's obvious flaws before its arrival at the Goodman Theatre this winter. The set does not help much to communicate the story, though the moving panel murals can be quite beautiful when bathed in designer Chris Ackerland's light. The gentleness of the text is also offset by some of Lucas's staging, with the characters occasionally entering at jarringly awkward moments. These problems can be fixed, and the text and score will hopefully continue to develop to their full potential while retaining the virtues of delicacy and integrity.


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