Monday, June 25, 2007

Back in the Day: "The Light in the Piazza" at Lincoln Center

Since I wrote about Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins below, I thought I'd post my thoughts on his The Light in the Piazza, which I saw at Lincoln Center just after it opened, in April 2005. (Taken from a very enthusiastic e-mail I wrote immediately after.)

I loved this musical! It's not quite perfect, but nearly so--and things don't have to be perfect to inspire love, do they? As soon as the overture's shimmering harp strings started up, I knew I was in good hands--they reminded me so much of Sunday in the Park with George, which is probably my all-time favorite score.

The plot: In 1953, Southerners Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara are visiting Florence. Clara and Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Italian man, fall instantly in love, and his family encourages a marriage, but Margaret opposes it. Eventually we learn why: Clara had a severe head injury at the age of 10, and doctors say she will never mature mentally and emotionally beyond that age. Yet, as the show progresses, Margaret has a change of heart (this is why she, not Clara, is the protagonist, and why it's such a complex role)--she realizes the lovelessness of her own marriage, and that Clara and Fabrizio have what she and her husband never had, and that Clara is not as immature as she had thought, and lets her daughter go. (Though she still doesn't tell the Naccarellis about Clara's condition. Clara herself doesn't know that anything is wrong with her.) The ending leaves many questions about what the future holds, but is also touching and emotional.

The sets and lighting were beautiful; how could they not be? A show called The Light in the Piazza just cries out for gorgeous scenery, doesn't it? The costumes, too--all those full 1950s cotton skirts and stylish pumps. (I wanted Franca's wardrobe!)

They took great advantage of the enormous thrust stage at the Beaumont. Though I sat on the side, I feel like I saw everything. A small, non-singing ensemble provided local color--even riding a bicycle across the stage! Building fronts, columns, and other units effectively defined the Florentine and Roman streetscapes, and there was a brilliant scene where Clara wanders around late at night, gets lost, and the buildings shift behind her to reflect her disorientation.

The only flaws I found (the reviews found them, too) were with the book, e.g. having Margaret interrupt the show and talk to the audience at various points. It wasn't too annoying because Victoria Clark was so good, and in musical theatre you have to suspend disbelief anyway; but still, the playwright in me thinks they could have found a better solution. Also, some scenes could have been better dramatized. Act I ends brilliantly: Fabrizio sneaks into Clara's hotel room and they are kissing passionately when Margaret walks in on them--and BLACKOUT. At the beginning of Act II, we discover that Margaret has whisked Clara off to Rome, away from Fabrizio. But I wanted to see what happened in the interim! What did Margaret say immediately after that blackout?

One thing I liked about the book is that it knew when to be funny, and when to retreat into the background and let emotion and music take over. There were some good laughs in Act I, and to relieve tension in Act II. Though every review said "This is a SERIOUS MUSICAL," I never felt beaten down by seriousness. Poignant romance, maybe, but that's different.

And the reviews are right: Victoria Clark is great. It's a difficult, daring performance in the way that it grows on you: the first scenes portray Margaret as a gauche American tourist, an overprotective, pushy mother, and rather silly to boot, and Clark gamely plays up these unflattering qualities. But halfway through the act she sings her first solo after a tense phone call to her husband, who is distant in more ways than one, and you realize that she's a human being, you understand that she acts gauche and pushy and like a dithering Southern belle because those are the only weapons she has, and you're amazed that you ever saw her any other way. I'm still thinking about where Margaret fits into the canon of Great Female Roles. She has interesting parallels with Amanda in The Glass Menagerie--both Southern ladies with crippled twenty-something daughters, who act frivolous on the surface but have fierce and wounded souls within, torturing themselves with memories of the glory days when they still had love in their lives, and meddling with their daughters' lives instead. Though obviously, Amanda is trying to live vicariously through Laura and marry her off, whereas Margaret wants to protect Clara forever and stop the marriage.

Clark's singing voice is beautiful in tone and she knows how to act with it--how to control it, when to belt and when to switch back to soprano. Her acting in the book scenes was no less good. There's a moment where Margaret is on the verge of telling Signor Naccarelli about Clara's disability, but loses her nerve and stammers, "Clara is...a very special child!" Clark was facing me for this scene and her expressions were wonderful. And then there are her fraught phone calls to her husband, and the song in which she has a change of heart and decides to let Clara go ahead with the marriage, and the scene in which she bribes Signor Naccarelli to permit the marriage after he calls it off, and the walk the two of them take where walking is a way of trying to forget that they are attracted to one another (and this attraction is all conveyed subtextually), and then her final, tour de force, devastating song about love, plain and simple--the place love should have in life.

I realized that since this is a good show (lovely music and workable book), I'll have the chance to see other productions of it. It could become a staple of regional theatres and light opera houses. And then I thought, "But I don't want to see another actress as Margaret!" That's how I knew I'd seen something extraordinary.

The role of Clara is almost as difficult: it requires the actress to behave as though she had a mental age of 10, yet make sense of this "10-year-old"'s passionate romantic love for Fabrizio. The writers establish Clara's naïveté in the very first song, when she runs around singing "We're on vacation!" She follows this with a beautiful "I Want" solo. (IMO, Piazza errs in not giving Margaret, the real protagonist, an I Want song until too late, but Clara's I Want song is undeniably lovely, and fits the moment.) Kelli O'Hara, who plays Clara, also has a lovely voice--all the women in the show do, and they are all sopranos, which is so unusual these days. Her performance gets at appropriate childish qualities: not just sweetness and naïveté, but stubbornness, frankness, emotional volatility, etc.

The actors playing the Naccarelli family are passionate Italians but without too much stereotyping. I enjoyed trying to understand what they were saying in Italian, but their gestures and expressions always make the gist of the scene clear. Sometimes their accents didn't sound right (and Clark and O'Hara sometimes slipped out of their Southern accent while singing), but that's minor. I'd seen Michael Berresse, who played Fabrizio's philandering brother, as Bill in Kiss Me Kate. He looked very different here, his hair slicked down, the archetypal cocky Italian guy. As such, he made a good foil to the curly-haired, innocent Fabrizio. Meanwhile, I'd heard Matthew Morrison (Fabrizio) sing '60s pop on the Hairspray album, but I was bowled away by his singing of Guettel's lyrical ballads--one entirely in Italian!

And so the score, Guettel's score. Lovely stuff, not the "walk out humming" kind but the kind that will bear repeated listenings. I still want to tease out some of the complexities of the score; for instance, the final number was stirringly moving in melody and powerfully acted, but the lyrics went by too fast for me to catch everything. I did not find the wordless "oohing" and "aahing" in other numbers as annoying as Ben Brantley found it. And I want to learn Clara's first song!

I'm so glad I went to see this. One absolutely terrific performance--although I had no real problems with anyone else's acting!--the music beautiful, the book OK, the overall effect supremely emotional and moving. This is still kind of a new experience for me--seeing a new musical and have it make this kind of impact on me. This show may have had the greatest cumulative effect of any I have ever seen.

Back to 2007:
2 years later, Piazza is still my favorite new Broadway score in a LONG time. I still listen to the cast album, most memorably when I brought my iPod to Florence and listened to it in a shabby hostel room, swooning along. "Say it Somehow" and "Fable" still get to me, and they are both brilliant ways to end an act. I will admit, however, the way Victoria Clark sings the "o" vowel with a British accent gets on my nerves...

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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