Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Guiding The Light in the Piazza

One year after this season's biggest Broadway musical hit Hairspray launched in a hugely successful out of town tryout at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, the Intiman Theatre, a Seattle company well know for staging classics, is staging the world premiere of another highly anticipated musical, The Light in the Piazza, opening June 14. Unlike Hairspray, however, The Light in the Piazza is not immediately planned for New York. The Seattle production will allow the show's creators to see what is working and what isn't, before a Second mounting at Chicago's Goodman theatre company which is presenting the work in association with Intiman.

Based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer, this romantic fantasy set in Florence and Rome Italy circa 1953, features a book by playwright and Intiman associate artistic director Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul, Longtime Companion) and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins, Saturn Returns). The cast includes such well-known musical theatre names as Victoria Clark as Margaret Johnson, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Clara Johnson, Steven Pasquale as Fabrizio Nacarelli, Patti Cohenour as Signora Nacarelli, Kelli O'Hara as Franca Nacarelli, Glenn Seven Allen as Guiseppe Nacarelli, Mark Harelik as Signor Nacarelli and Robert Shampain as Roy Johnson.

The story, which began life in the New Yorker in 1960, tells a romantic tale of true romance, set in Florence and Rome, Italy, circa 1953, where Margaret Johnson, wife of a successful American businessman is traveling with her lovely and vivacious daughter Clara, a young woman somewhere between her late teens and early twenties, who is not all she appears to be. Clara's accidental flirtation with a young Italian charmer named Fabrizio Nacarelli into a passionate love affair, which Margaret inexplicably opposes.

At a press preview of Guettel's score, he and Lucas shared their thoughts on the collaborative process, why this piece cried out to them for adaptation, and how important they felt it was to premiere the show, as a work-in-progress, in the supportive climate of Seattle theatre, far away from the East Coast doom-sayers who frequently destroy a show while it is still in the incubation process.

From a demo recording made in Guettel's NYC loft earlier this year with members of the cast (with Guettel taking on Fabrizio's vocals), it is instantly clear, from an instrumental and choral prologue, that Guettel's gift for melody is now in full bloom. Considering his maternal grandfather was American musical theatre icon Richard Rodgers, and his mother Mary wrote the captivating music to Once Upon A Mattress, his gift for melody may well be considered genetic, but he clearly has his own twenty-first century musical style. Here though it does seem to have some of that instantly memorable quality to it that was his grandfather's trademark, combined with a complexity that recalls his longtime family acquaintance Stephen Sondheim.

Lucas and a then fifteen year old Guettel first met in fact following a performance of the bookless musical Marry Me A Little, which Lucas created out of Stephen Sondheim cutout songs. Lucas recalls Guettel chastising Sondheim with the words "What was up with the harmonics at the end of that song, Steve?," and thinking to himself "Where did he get that kind of nerve?" Several years later they really became acquainted, and Lucas says " I saw his musical Floyd Collins five times, I was so taken with his work. Then I began to pester him to work together." After a project Lucas proposed failed to interest Guettel, he called Lucas one day, two years ago, and said he had some songs for a project that he was thinking of abandoning, which was Piazza, which Guettel's mother had first brought to his attention. Lucas liked what he heard, overcoming trepidation that a musical set in 1950s Italy wouldn't fit Guettel's musical vocabulary, as it was the period when the likes of Henry Mancini and, yes, Richard Rodgers were dominant in American music. But they began working together on the show at Sundance in Wyoming, and had another workshop this past spring.

"Adam," Lucas says, "is a melodist, and that's not to say that his words don't have great importance, but it's his music that is very moving and important to me. I feel that the American musical theatre form is about what cannot be said any other way than bursting into song, about emotions that transcend language, and this story, we hope, lends itself to that."

Many of Guettel's lyrics are kept very simple, because the central characters of Clara and Fabrizio are each barely able to speak each other's languages. An early song between the two captivatingly establishes the fact that the language of young love is far more important to their burgeoning relationship than anything verbal could be.

At the explicit urging of Lucas, Guettel, and Intiman artistic director Bart Sher, it will not be divulged here just why Margaret opposes Clara and Fabrizio's relationship, and hopefully our readers won't feel obligated to blow the whistle, through familiarity with the book or the relatively forgotten but actually quite charming 1962 MGM film which starred Olivia DeHavilland, Yvette Mimieux, and in a revelatory performance a young, uninhibited, George Hamilton.

The film does make the error of telling the story's secret way too soon, and it is wise of the musical's creators to try to conceal it (Guettel openly admits that he failed to find any better way to create the conflict in the tale than Spencer had in her original story). Neither Lucas nor Guettel had ever seen the film, though by amazing coincidence Turner Classic Movies aired it a few hours after the presentation I attended. Just let it be said that fans of the movie, non-fans, and those entirely unfamiliar with this wistful romantic tale will find something to savor in Lucas and Guettel's version.

Though only perhaps a third of the 15 songs in the score were played, it was clear Guettel has found the way to musicalize the very diverse main characters. "Dividing Day," Margaret's rumination on the unraveling of her marriage to her emotionally distant, busy husband is a bluesy, up tempo rant of a middle-aged Southern matron who feels totally unsatisfied by all the wasted time in her life. "Say It Somehow" is an aching, musically rhapsodic love duet between Fabrizio and Clara, "This is What I See" is Fabrizio's tender way of convincing Clara they can be a couple, and Clara's title song is a gently, understated way of her telling her Mother that what she sees, and the way she sees things has shown her Italy in a way far more real than what you may find in tourist traps or guided tours.

The collaborators also feel that Italy, however romanticized, is a far more genuinely captured than it was in Rodgers, Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents musical, Do I Hear A Waltz?, set roughly in the same time period in Venice. "It was false and artificial. And they despised each other," says Lucas, though Guettel clarifies that "Sondheim and Laurents got along; Rodgers felt conspired against. It's hard when you're working with just one collaborator, as I am, to feel conspired against," he chuckles.

The only conspiracy I sense afoot with the team creating Intiman's The Light in the Piazza is one to enchant, entertain and above all fill Seattle audiences with the sound of Adam Guettel's rich music and Craig Lucas's humorous and heartfelt wordplay.

The Light in the Piazza at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer Street in Seattle Center begins previews from May 31. Opening night June 14 is a gala benefit for Intiman Theatre. Ticket prices start at $30 (all previews), $35.50 (all matinees), $40 (Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday evenings) and $45 (Friday-Saturday evenings). For reservations call (206) 269-1900, or visit their website at

- David-Edward Hughes

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