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Chicago by John Olson

The Light in the Piazza

During a talk at the Goodman Theatre on January 5, composer-lyricist Adam Guettel promised a good cry to anyone who saw his new musical, The Light in the Piazza, which was about to begin previews at the theater for its second production. I came close to tears at the January 19th press preview, and though I didn't quite make it over that edge, a little more work by Guettel and even more from librettist Craig Lucas might get me to that point in a future production.

"No one with a dream that's unfulfilled should ever come to Italy," according to leading character Margaret Johnson, "no matter how dead and buried you thought [the dream] was." She's visiting Florence in 1953 with her young adult daughter Clara, and reveals that she had given up hope the girl would ever find a loving husband. At this point in act two, you believe the dream will go unrealized. These are high stakes indeed. This is a story with emotions so intense they need music to be fully expressed.

Margaret describes Clara as a "special child" and "not everything that she seems to be." Just exactly what that means remains a mystery until late in act two, and I won't spoil it here. (Don't read the interview with Guettel in the January American Theater unless you want it revealed to you sooner than the authors intended.) Clara has met Fabrizio, a sweet and handsome young Florentine. They're instantly taken with each other and before long have decided to marry. Though desperately wishing for Clara's happiness, Margaret believes it would be a mistake, though she has been reluctant to explain to anyone exactly why. By the time she shares the facts with Fabrizio's family (and the audience), she believes that she has waited too long, and that an unbearable heartbreak is imminent.

Though the theme of the piece is not evident until this late point in the action, it is meticulously and quietly set up. We also learn how Margaret's fears for Clara are intensified by Margaret's unhappiness over her own marriage to a husband who appears to be emotionally remote. He is physically remote as well, having stayed home in North Carolina to tend to his responsibilities as a tobacco company executive. The abilities of these two sets of couples to connect are contrasted. Clara and Fabrizio manage to fall in love in spite of a language barrier, while Margaret and husband Roy can barely converse over the phone due to the delay in their overseas connection.

The revelation of Piazza's themes has a great impact. If it doesn't deliver the gut-wrenching emotion Guettel promised, it may be because he and Lucas could do more to get us to care about the characters, even without revealing any of their surprises - give us more time with Clara and Fabrizio, show us more nuances and explain their attraction to each other and their needs in more detail. As it is, they appear to have no more than an adolescent infatuation and it's hard to get too worried about the outcome of that.

Wayne Wilcox's (A Man of No Importance) Fabrizio is an impetuous yet sincere and likable young man. Celia Keenan-Bolger (Johanna in the Kennedy Center's Sweeney Todd) keeps our sympathy for Clara in spite of her occasional immature and perplexing behavior. Still, it would be better if the writers could bring us into their minds and backstories to a greater degree, and they have plenty of playing time to do that. The entire show runs just over two hours, including a 15-minute intermission, and the first act is just an hour. Writers who have the courage to be succinct and economical can be appreciated, but a little more investment in Clara and Fabrizio could pay big dividends.

The show's emotional center is Margaret, written as a warm, compassionate mother. She may be a bit over-protective, but we're inclined to believe she does know what's best for her daughter, even when her concerns aren't yet clear to us. Victoria Clark (Alice Beene in Broadway's Titanic) and the writers create a highly sympathetic character, legitimately torn between her need to protect her daughter and her desire to allow Clara to take the risks that might allow a fuller life. Clark gives Margaret a knowing sense of humor, but shows her vulnerability effectively as well. She caps this winning performance with a reading of the show's final number, "Fable," that brings down the house.

Lucas and Guettel may also want to work a little more on finding a consistent tone. Comic relief is one thing, and is appreciated in a piece with the emotional weight Piazza seeks to achieve, but the nature and amount of the humor seem off-balance here. Fabrizio and his family (father, mother, brother, and sister-in-law) have clichéd Italian accents and display many of the stereotypical Italian mannerisms found in Saturday Night Fever. It's charming when Fabrizio's first sound on stage is the singing of his own name in operatic fashion while introducing himself to Clara, but when Guettel uses a mock melodramatic chord to close act one after Margaret finds the young lovers together against her wishes, you start to wonder just how seriously he wants us to take this story. It's more acceptable in act two when he brings an ominous chord in the underscoring as Fabrizio's father (Mark Harelik) tells Margaret that Clara will have to convert to Catholicism in order to marry his son. Just after intermission, when Fabrizio is expressing inconsolable grief at his separation from Clara, his mother, played with expert comic timing by Patti Cohenour, breaks character and explains the action to the audience in English, saying, "I thought you should know." It's funny, but it takes us a while to get back into the appropriate mindset for the important and touching scene between Margaret and Clara that follows.

Guettel's score is an ambitious and significant effort. It's challenging yet not inaccessible on a first listening, and I'm looking forward to someday owning a recording that I can really get to know. Though hardly traditional in structure, he gives us enough repetition of phrases and relatively predictable patterns of construction that we can "get" the songs the first time around. The score is apparently still undergoing some editing and tweaking - just ten days after the first preview, an insert stuffed into programs showed a different list of musical numbers from that printed in the program. Two songs were cut from act one and others assigned to different or additional characters.

The score has many high points. In "Passeggiata," Fabrizio takes Clara on a tour of his neighborhood. Guettel does an amazing job of writing lyrics in Italian and broken English that are just right for the character, the scene and the song. The music conveys his enthusiasm and his urgency to bring Clara into his life. "Say It Somehow" is the act one closing duet in which Clara convinces Fabrizio she'll understand the meaning in his words even she doesn't know his language. She explains her love to her mother in the lovely title song, the closest thing to a catchy melody in the show. "Dividing Day" is a solo in which Margaret reveals her disappointment in the current state of her marriage, and in "Love to Me," Fabrizio passionately convinces Clara of his love.

In a traditional musical theater score, the music is generally reflective of the time and place of the action, and Guettel's grandfather Richard Rodgers was the master of that practice in his shows with Oscar Hammerstein II. Though Guettel's music frequently sounds Italian, it doesn't evoke Florence in the early '50s. Additional musical theater conventions would have characters singing in musical idioms that would be familiar to them, which for many characters would be something much more pop-influenced than this score. By departing from these conventions, Guettel's score draws attention to itself apart from the whole in which it exists, even though it certainly serves the characters and their emotions. The music is rich enough to merit this attention, yet this deviation from the norm will be jarring for some audiences. The challenging nature of the music, more influenced by 20th century classics than by mid-century show tunes, may make it an additionally tough sell to mainstream audiences.

Guettel has expressed a desire to get a show to Broadway someday, but I think this piece will be best suited for a very small house. With a cast of seven principals, an ensemble of four, an orchestra of five and a minimal set, it seems a little small even for the 600-seat Albert Theater at the Goodman.

On the other hand, a little more stage "magic" might enlarge the piece without breaking it. Michael Yergan's set - including a wall of storefronts on one side and a row of columns on the other, some sliding flats upstage, various pieces of furniture, and a wrought iron fence rolled on and off - is so minimal as to be inconsequential. Given Margaret's observation that Italy inspires one to revisit their dreams, a more extensive visualization of the environment couldn't be a bad thing. Catherine Zuber helps by capturing an early '50s fashion sense well enough in her costume designs, but director Bartlett Sher did little to visualize the piece in movement or composition. His staging of the opening number, "Statues and Stories," which establishes the setting of the Piazza in Florence and is the only number to use the full cast, is rather unimaginative and gets the show off to a slow start. As artistic director of Seattle's Intiman Theater, Sher has developed an impressive resumé of classics and recently made his opera directing debut at the Seattle Opera. He took over direction of Piazza for the Goodman production after Lucas directed its world premiere at the Intiman last summer. Lucas and Guettel might want to try a third director with more musical theater experience who can help shape the piece further for their next production.

The Light in the Piazza is an ambitious, thoroughly original work of musical theater that will be a must for those interested in seeing the art form explore new boundaries. It has a strong score and story with the potential of becoming one of the first important musicals of the century.

The Goodman Theatre's production of The Light in the Piazza continues through February 15, 2004. The Goodman Theatre is located at 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. For ticket and performance information phone (312) 443-3800, or visit www.goodman-theatre.org.

The Light in the Piazza, produced in association with the Intiman Theatre, Seattle. Book by Craig Lucas. Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel. Based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Music Director - Ted Sperling. Choreographer - Marcela Lorca.

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-- John Olson



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