The musical is based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer, which was subsequently turned into a 1962 film by the same name. The story follows a middle-aged American mother and her naïve daughter as they journey to Italy in 1953 on vacation. Daughter Clara quickly meets and falls in love with a young Italian man, Fabrizio. Her mother Margaret must decide whether to protect her daughter, who is not all that she appears to be, or to give her a chance at love and happiness.
The book of the show by Craig Lucas possesses a fairly simple plot, yet the story is made interesting by the inner psychology, emotions, and motivations of the characters. Some of the story is explained in asides to the audience by Margaret, and portions (either through song lyrics or dialogue) are delivered in Italian. Thankfully, the melodrama that is to be expected from a show like this is kept to a palatable level by having the characters comically acknowledge the most expressive emotional outbursts of others. And, while it loses focus somewhat in the second act, the book generally serves the story sufficiently throughout.
Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, won the Tony Award for his score of The Light in the Piazza. Initially, Guettel's music may seem unconventional to many ears, but it conveys a dreamlike sophistication that is appropriate for the material. His lyrics are likewise intelligent, yet not as simply straightforward as most other Broadway scores. While the songs are more "accessible" than Guettel's other major works, Floyd Collins and Myths & Hymns (both previously presented in Cincinnati at CCM), they may still not be everyone's cup of tea. The enchanting melodies of songs such as "The Beauty Is," "Say It Somehow" and "Love To Me," as well as the deeply layered lyrics of "Dividing Day" and "Fable," are to be appreciated. The splendid orchestrations from Guettel, Bruce Coughlin, and Ted Sperling are not to be overlooked for their appeal and craftsmanship as well. James Lowe leads a talented five-piece orchestra that does sound a little thin in spots.
As Margaret Johnson, Broadway veteran Christine Andreas proves to be a fine actress, bringing a restraint, refinement, and intelligence to her detailed portrayal that is perfect for this central character. However, the hyperactive vibrato in her singing voice that has long been identified with Ms. Andreas isn't an ideal match for the role's more subdued material (and doesn't at all sound like a Southern lady of this era). Elena Shaddow is a winning Clara, capturing the innocence and exuberance of this childlike adult, and singing with assurance and skill. David Burnham is a passionate Fabrizio, singing capably and perhaps surpassing others that have played the part in his acting of the role. The remaining actors all give worthwhile portrayals as well.
When The Light in the Piazza was presented by Lincoln Center on Broadway, it was supposed to be a short run of a couple of months. However, the show extended several times to run for over a year, and received a Live From Lincoln Center television broadcast on PBS. The person most responsible for the success of the show has to be Director Bartlett Sher. Rarely do you find a score, book, design elements, and direction so cohesively brought together. The melding of these individual pieces to create such a perfect atmosphere, tone, and pace for the show is quite an achievement, and Mr. Sher must receive credit. The musical staging by Jonathan Butterell is also appealing.
The lighting (Christopher Akerlind), sets (Michael Teargan), and costumes (Catherine Zuber) are all strikingly beautiful, and evoke the romance, culture, and appreciation for life and art that one would imagine for Italy in the 1950s. It should be no surprise that all three design elements garnered Tony Awards. The changes made to adapt the show from Lincoln Center's thrust stage to the proscenium stage of Cincinnati's Aronoff Center (and all of the other stages for the tour) are accomplished skillfully and maintain the aesthetics of the designs.
The Light in the Piazza is different from most shows that tour due to its deeply romantic sophistication, character driven story, and compelling score. If this cast can't erase the memories of their Broadway counterparts, they provide uniformly strong performances all around. Hopefully, the remaining three Tony nominees from 2005 that Cincinnati audiences will see before the end of 2006 (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Spamalot) will likewise prove to be as entertaining as their Broadway productions were. The tour continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through September 17, 2006. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.