The Light In The Piazza Book by Craig Lucas. Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer. Direction by Bartlett Sher. Musical staging by Jonathan Butterell. Music direction by Ted Sperling. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind. Sound by ACME Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Ted Sperling and Adam Guettel. Additional Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Cast: Glenn Seven Allen, Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, David Bonanno, David Burnham, Victoria Clark, Patti Cohenour, Beau Gravitte, Laura Griffith, Mark Harelik, Prudence Wright Holmes, Jennifer Hughes, Felicity LaFortune, Catherine La Valle, Michel Moinot, Matthew Morrison, Kelli O'Hara, Joseph Siravo.
Those who have been longing for a serious-minded, deeply felt musical to open on Broadway this season have finally gotten their wish with The Light in the Piazza. This show at the Vivian Beaumont shines like a beacon amid the dreck that's clogged the Great White Way's musical stages this season; whatever else might be said about it, its heart - and, unlike most other musicals this season, it does have one - is always in the right place.
It's certainly easy to laud the intentions of the show, which seeks to return to the Broadway musical a level of feeling, sophistication, and even art that today seldom seems to have a place alongside the likes of Spamalot and Brooklyn. Its capacity to unlock and address truly human concerns (particularly of the romantic variety) is a welcome antidote to the many recent musicals that are content with stock, jokey situations and archetypal or downright stereotypical characters, when real characters are employed at all.
It's more difficult, however, to praise the show itself. Based on Elizabeth Spencer's novella and with an often lush score by Adam Guettel and a generally admirable book by Craig Lucas, the musical bursts with the sunshine and unique personality of its Italian setting (primarily Florence, but also briefly Rome). But it doesn't deliver successfully enough on its implicit promise to identify and celebrate the transformative powers of love.
That promise is made no less than twice over the course of the evening: First, for the young woman Clara Johnson (Kelli O'Hara), who's visiting Florence with her mother and falls in love with an Italian man named Fabrizio Naccarelli (Matthew Morrison). And second, for Clara's mother Margaret (Victoria Clark), who learns through her daughter's fraught but ardent courtship that she can - and should - expect better than her loveless marriage to Roy (Beau Gravitte), who's stayed behind in the United States.
But in neither case does the show fully realize its potential for unlocking greater meaning behind these two visions of love. While Lucas has deftly scripted a number of complex relationships - Clara and Fabrizio and Margaret and Roy, yes, but also Margaret and Fabrizio's father (Mark Harelik) - he's often reluctant to let them drive the story on their own. Instead, he implements a number of coy dramatic techniques and superficial obfuscations that would be more rightfully at home in any of this season's other self-referential musicals.
This usually manifests itself in Margaret, who narrates the show and doles out - at points too precisely measured to be effortlessly effective - baldly ambiguous information about an emotional impediment that might hamper Clara's future happiness. (The mystery is eventually revealed in full, at an arbitrary point.) But near the beginning of the second act, a heated Naccarelli family scene stops dead in its tracks so Fabrizio's mother (Patti Cohenour) can muse comically about narrating the show in English, which she doesn't speak. This is an unnecessary jest that calls unnecessary attention to the show as a show, something director Bartlett Sher otherwise works scrupulously hard to avoid.
The rest of his production happily finds moments of simple magic in ordinary occurrences, usually in the Clara-Fabrizio storyline: They meet charmingly when he catches her wind-blown hat; she wanders the streets searching for him but becomes lost and terrified in a vividly musicalized scene of harrowing power; later, her feelings for him explode once at his overbearing sister-in-law Franca (Sister Uriarte Berry) and once when she believes she's lost him for good, when she wanders about a stage that suddenly becomes as vastly empty as she feels inside. (The appearing and disappearing of Michael Yeargan's imposing stone palazzo sets is another of this production's impressive feats of stage magic.)
If Clara isn't necessarily the role that will make O'Hara the top-rank Broadway star she deserves to be, it will hopefully at least lead her to it: She's the production's standout, looking more radiant and youthful than ever (as decked out in Catherine Zuber's lovely period costumes) and sumptuously singing Guettel's rangy, difficult music with unqualified ease.
Clark is glowingly maternal as Margaret, a caterpillar slowly becoming a butterfly, though she tends to oversell the more protective aspects of the character, and her Southern accent is not always consistent. Morrison gives a beguiling, sexually charged performance, but is frequently overtaxed by Guettel's compositions and can't give O'Hara the strong musical counterpart she needs. The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Michael Berresse as Fabrizio's debonair brother, is uniformly strong.
Still, it's impossible to shake the realization that the show, above all, belongs to Guettel. The composer, as well known for his impressive theatrical lineage (Richard Rodgers was his grandfather) as for his 1996 breakthrough effort Floyd Collins, has provided here music and lyrics nearly operatic in scope. The score counts among its offerings elaborate counterpoint ensembles (there's a full-out octet in the second act), searing arias, and even gently pulsing Italian pop-art songs that pinpoint the place as well as the period (1953).
His finest numbers here include that octet, Clara's street-wandering "Hysteria" and her jealousy-driven "Tirade," and the first-act finale "Say It Somehow," in which Clara and Fabrizio break down emotional and linguistic barriers in a few minutes of passionate musical love-making. But much of Guettel's other writing is more staid in nature, and demonstrates his unwillingness to exploit the full possibilities of the musical storytelling form. Franca's backhanded "The Joy You Feel," the plaintive title song sung by Clara, and Margaret's "Dividing Day" about her failing marriage are at best obligatory time-wasters that could play equally well in some other show.
Better can be said of Margaret's soulful 11 o'clock number, "Fable," in which she details what she's learned about the difference between idealized and realistic notions of love, between how children perceive it and how adults know it to be. Clark invests herself in it like she does no other song in the show, and it results in an absorbing, involving finale. But she can't transcend its simplistic sentiments, many of which have already been addressed in subtler, more compelling ways elsewhere.
The number soars easily, but has difficulty landing. The same can be said of most of The Light in the Piazza.