Funny where love may turn up. In "The Light in the Piazza," which opened Monday at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, it arrives on a gust of wind, blowing a young woman's straw hat across a Florentine plaza and into the hands of a handsome, almost fairy-tale fellow.
This enchanting musical celebrates the unexpectedness and intensity of it all, no matter what the roadblocks, and does it with style. "Piazza" is a show of considerable beauty - more melodically, emotionally and visually satisfying than any other musical this season.
It is a love story that focuses not only on the conventional aspects of romance such as love at first sight. "Piazza" also artfully examines a mother's devotion to her child as well as several variations of married love, most poignantly the arid union of a Southern matron now on a tour of Italy with her daughter, and her husband, a tobacco company executive, who has remained at home in North Carolina.
All this is found in Elizabeth Spencer's novella on which "The Light in the Piazza" is based. Composer Adam Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas have taken Spencer's perceptive and often gently humorous dissection of some Americans abroad in the early 1950s and turned it into a literate, yet heartfelt entertainment.
In a Broadway season awash in clever if strenuously constructed silliness - "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" come to mind - "The Light in the Piazza" stands out as something more: a truly adult musical with serious intentions.
Lucas, author of such plays as "Prelude to a Kiss" and "Reckless," has contributed a clear-headed adaptation of Spencer's tale. It centers on Margaret, that middle-aged woman, and her twentysomething daughter, Clara, described by her mother as "a special child."
"She is not quite as she seems," says Margaret at one point during the evening before the young woman's mystery is revealed.
It is Clara who is smitten by Fabrizio, a young Italian who is equally infatuated with her. But Clara, who blossoms in the warm Italian sun, doesn't just get this persistent suitor. Along with Fabrizio comes the young man's family: a gallant father, a doting mother, a tom cat of a brother and a jealous, amorous sister-in-law. Being Italian, they all sing beautifully.
And Guettel, who wrote the off-Broadway musical "Floyd Collins," has provided some intricate yet gorgeous melodies for them to warble. The composer has a distinct musical voice, not flashy, but quietly insinuating. His songs sneak up on you, capture a character or a moment and then quickly move on. Yet the memory remains.
And his lyrics refuse to find their way to easy rhyme.
The cast serves this material with astonishing skill, starting with a perfectly realized performance by Victoria Clark as the distraught American mother. Clark, a musical-theater veteran of such shows as "Titanic" and the Matthew Broderick revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," flourishes here. -
The tremulous, pent-up Margaret brims with love, for her daughter and for her husband, a love that is not consistently returned. In "Dividing Day," one of the show's pivotal musical numbers, Margaret realizes love has disappeared from her marriage. It's a shattering moment that the actress turns into an aria of devastation.
Kelli O'Hara is lovely as the childlike, impetuous Clara, the show's most vocally demanding role. Matthew Morrison is properly ardent as Clara's newfound love. And there are firmly etched portraits by Mark Harelik and Patti Cohenour as the youth's parents, Michael Berresse as his wandering brother and, particularly, Sarah Uriarte Berry as his spitfire of a sister-in-law.
In a way, Margaret is the outsider in this group, the one unattached person on stage. In one striking tableau, three couples are on stage, with Margaret looking longingly at their togetherness.
Bartlett Sher has directed the show with remarkable fluidity. Designer Michael Yeargan's elegant sets float effortlessly across the vast Beaumont stage. Columns and arches, along with a statue or two and drops of Italian renaissance paintings, represent the glories of Florence. Catherine Zuber's costumes, particularly for the women, are witty time capsules, instant reminders that we are in 1953, an era of full skirts and trim, tight suits.
"No one with a dream should come to Italy, no matter how dead and buried you think it is...This is where Italy will get you," Margaret says during one of her many asides to the audience. That bright Italian sunlight will expose, for better or worse, all your secrets. In "Piazza," those secrets - and how they are dealt with - make for an entrancing, affecting musical.
Adam Guettel's score for "The Light in the Piazza" is the best piece of theater music since Stephen Sondheim's "Passion," lo, 11 years ago.
Guettel has captured the delicate, sometimes painful, ultimately radiant moods of Elizabeth Spencer's story about Margaret, a middle-aged American guiding her brain-damaged daughter, Clara, through 1950s Italy.
Unlike some of Guettel's earlier music, which had a "learned" quality to it, this score is lyrical, direct and, especially in its final moments, deeply moving.
Spencer's novel, filmed 50 years ago with Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux, presents difficulties Craig Lucas' book has not solved.
At times, for example, he depicts the Italian characters as caricatures. At other times, their responses are unexpectedly grim. Elsewhere, his writing is clever to the point of becoming annoying.
It is a great tribute to Guettel's score that he surmounts all these obstacles.
This is also a tribute to the extraordinary cast, led by Victoria Clark as the well-meaning but sometimes confused mother. Margaret is disturbed when the handsome Fabrizio woos her daughter, because she is convinced Clara can never lead a normal life. When, however, his family expresses reservations about the match, she goes on the defensive to save the marriage.
The dialogue does not fully articulate the understanding she reaches with Fabrizio's father, played by Mark Harelik, but they are so eloquent in their silent communication that we can accept the rapprochement. It is an example of Bartlett Sher's impeccable direction.
Clark is even more powerful as a singer, and her final song, a heartrending soliloquy about the wisdom of middle age, is absolutely devastating.
Kelli O'Hara's looks are unconventional for an ingenue, which makes her just right for Clara, but there is something deeply appealing about her, especially when she sings. Matthew Morrison, last seen in "Hairspray," has the perfect chiseled features for Fabrizio, and he sings and acts with an intensity one could not have imagined from the earlier show.
The physical production is spectacular. Michael Yeargan's sets, hauntingly lit by Christopher Akerlind, conjure Italy perfectly.
There is a disarming simplicity and translucency to the orchestrations Guettel has created with Ted Sperling, who conducts the score with a full understanding of its emotional riches.
Many of my old vinyl cast albums are scratched from overuse. Thank God the album for 'The Light in the Piazza," which cannot come soon enough, will be on compact disk!
Americans in Italy, in the summer of 1953: A mother and daughter, guidebook in hand, are in the Piazza Signoria in Florence. The wind catches the girl's hat, and a young Italian man retrieves it.
That's the starting impulse of "The Light in the Piazza," the interesting but ultimately disappointing musical that Lincoln Center Theatre opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont.
The story is taken from Elizabeth Spencer's 1959 novella, and the resulting musical, which has a book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, is a sweet oddity.
The young woman is Clara Johnson (Kelli O'Hara), and though she is 26 years old, she seems peculiarly immature, so her mother, Margaret (Victoria Clark), is perhaps understandably protective.
Fabrizio (Matthew Morrison), the madly smitten Florentine, is only 20, but soon the lovers are planning marriage. Yet there is a serious snag - and it puts Margaret in a difficult position with Fabrizio and his family:
When Clara was 10, she was kicked in the head by a pony. Now, as a doctor tells her mother, she has "a 10-year-old mind in a 26-year-old body."
Lucas ("Prelude to a Kiss") has carefully wrought the musical's fascinating book, which is full of character and atmosphere.
Assisted by Michael Yeargan's clever and versatile settings, Catherine Zuber's spot-on period costuming, Christopher Akerlind's consistently apt lighting and Bartlett Sher's effortless staging, the playwright perfectly captures the shadow and substance of postwar Italy.
The problem with "Piazza" lies more with its music, despite its composer's admirable pedigree.
Guettel is Broadway royalty - his grandfather was Richard Rodgers, and his mother, Mary Rodgers, wrote the music for "Once Upon a Mattress." He himself, with the much admired off-Broadway "Floyd Collins" to his credit, is clearly positioned as "post-Sondheim," with ail the difficulties that implies.
His lyrics are fluent and touching, full of the love of living and the joys and pains of life. But the music misses some melodic quality, the kind that can catch in the mind and heart - the same quality that made his grandfather, and Sondheim, great.
The performances are uniformly fine. Clark, in the leading role as the mother, gives a beautifully layered performance, often funny yet touching.
As the impetuous lovers, a luminous O'Hara and a headstrong Morrison are faultless, and Fabrizio's bourgeois family - led by a superbly starchy Mark Harelik as the father - are wonderfully convincing.
But everything else apart, Guettel's modish music is the show's fatal flaw: It doesn't fly. It trades in prose, but Lucas and Spencer's story needs poetry.
And now this bulletin from the arid planet of Broadway: Rumors have been confirmed that a real human being has materialized in a mainstream musical, an environment that has become increasingly hostile to such life forms.
This unexpected creature, of the species American abroad and named Mrs. Margaret Johnson, appears in "The Light in the Piazza," Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas's encouragingly ambitious and discouragingly unfulfilled new show, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Whatever problems there may be with this production, which reaches for the sky with short if well-shaped arms, Mrs. Johnson qualifies as a blessing for those in search of signs of intelligent life in the American musical.
For in the world of singing cartoons and dancing robots that are multiplying on Broadway like flu germs, the middle-aged, middle-class Mrs. Johnson - a tourist from Winston-Salem, N.C., in Florence, Italy, in 1953 - has the virtue of being a convincingly ordinary person who finds extraordinary self-expression in song. Played by Victoria Clark in what is hands down the best musical performance by an actress this season, Mrs. Johnson infuses the tired old woes and wonders of midlife disenchantment and autumnal romance with freshening shadow and light.
Otherwise, the show, which has been given a sumptuous production under the direction of Bartlett Sher, is notable for looking and sounding pretty and confused, rather like Mrs. Johnson's daughter, Clara (Kelli O'Hara), a 26-year-old beauty with the mind of a 10-year-old. Adapted from Elizabeth Spencer's elegant, elliptical novel of 1960, "The Light in the Piazza" considers love as a many-flavored thing, from sugary to sour.
But the production comes into its own only in the sweetly bitter maternal regrets and dreams of Margaret Johnson. One of the bright young hopes of Broadway, Mr. Guettel invests Mrs. Johnson's sung soliloquies with an emotional texture and insight that goes beyond the promise of his "Floyd Collins," a theater insider cult favorite from nine years ago. Mrs. Johnson's songs capture what Mr. Guettel and Mr. Lucas describe in a program note as the "enormous potential for music" of Ms. Spencer's novella, suggested "as much by what is not said as by what is."
But Ms. Spencer's narrative of a Henry James-style culture clash was confined to the point of view of Mrs. Johnson. Revisiting the city where she and her husband spent their honeymoon, Mrs. Johnson is both alarmed and gladdened when Fabrizio Naccarelli (Matthew Morrison, the shiny-voiced hunk from "Hairspray"), a handsome young Florentine with a dangerously charming father (Mark Harelik), falls in love with the childlike Clara.
Taking Mrs. Johnson's story outside of her limited perspective presents a wide and perhaps unsolvable set of problems. The comic clichés of ungainly Americans in sophisticated Europe are writ large and gratingly here. And though it is brave to have the Italian characters speak and sing in Italian, this creates problems for much of the audience as well as for the Johnsons. The production is reduced in one scene to having Fabrizio's mother (Patti Cohenour) step outside the action to say, "I don't speak English, but I have to tell you what's going on."
This means of bridging the language gap feels like a Band-Aid solution, one that doesn't really stick. The same effect of patching rather than stitching holes is also present in Mrs. Johnson's casual expository asides to the audience: "How I have managed to allow this to drag on even another few days ..."
Such moments disrupt the emotional momentum of the show, previously produced at the Intiman Theater in Seattle and the Goodman Theater in Chicago. And while there are winningly detailed supporting performances, especially from Michael Berresse and Sarah Uriarte Berry as Fabrizio's squabbling brother and sister-in-law, the cast members suffer from the overall disjunctiveness.
Most troubling is the characterization of Clara, whose mental development was arrested when she was kicked in the head by a pony when she was 10. Clara voices her thoughts in metaphorically dense and sexually resonant songs that seem beyond the reach of a little girl, even one trapped in a woman's body.
The silver-voiced Ms. O'Hara ("The Sweet Smell of Success") does not reconcile these contradictions. Then again, she is saddled with dialogue that smacks of the spoiled, petulant daughters played on film by Sandra Dee half a century ago. ("Daddy doesn't love you! Look in his eyes for once. Look at yourself in the mirror.") Mr. Harelik, while smooth enough as Fabrizio's courtly father, does not project the fatal Latin sex appeal so cherished in mid-20th-century romances and associated with Rossano Brazzi, who played the same role in the forgettable 1961 film version.
Cinematic soap operas of the mid-20th century, like Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life," inevitably come to mind here. The gorgeous autumn-leaf-strewn set (Michael Yeargan); the lush golden lighting (Christopher Akerlind); the delectable period costumes (Catherine Zuber) all summon the land of Sirk, as does the sweeping, harp-accented music (ravishingly orchestrated by Ted Sperling, Mr. Guettel and Bruce Coughlin) that begins the show.
Initially, I wondered if the production might be elaborating on the tone of knowing Sirkian hommage achieved by Todd Haynes in his film "Far From Heaven." But "Piazza" lacks the sustained vision and complexity of that movie. Mr. Guettel's evocations of pure and radiant young love, which involve a lot of breathlessly protracted "ah's" by Fabrizio and Clara, are simply lovely. They also become very irritating.
The songs of anxiety and dissonance are more persuasive, as when Clara finds herself lost in the city or when the alluring Ms. Berry delivers a Sondheimesque indictment of marriage. The quintet "Aiutami," performed by the Naccarelli family, brims with a tart musical wit that, though appealing, doesn't really fit into the show.
It's when Ms. Clark sings of the cracks and compromises in life that you experience the privilege of stepping inside someone else's mind. A hitherto inconspicuous Broadway performer , Ms. Clark emerges as a star not through show-stopping flash but with the quiet confidence of an actress who knows every bumpy inch of her conflicted character.
It helps, of course, that Mr. Guettel has such a commanding musical grasp of this character as well. A song in the first act, "Dividing Day," in which Mrs. Johnson reflects on the emptiness of her marriage, is a nigh-perfect fusion of a character, an actress and a song. Such moments are rare enough these days to make Mr. Guettel's Florence worth a side trip for hopeful theatergoers still looking for love in a Broadway musical.
The prevailing philosophy in popular musical comedy can be summed up in four words: wink, wink, nudge, nudge. From The Producers to Avenue Q to Spamalot, Broadway hits revel in glib irony, asking us to join their creators in a celebration of our collective cleverness.
If such shows can be viewed as a reaction to the sober bombast that reigned in the late-20th-century heyday of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his imitators, then maybe The Light in The Piazza (* * * 1/2 out of four), which opened Monday at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, is a sign that artists are ready to open their hearts again and trust audiences to do the same.
With this Broadway debut, Adam Guettel, the celebrated composer/lyricist behind such cult favorites as Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns, lays claim to his grandfather Richard Rodgers' legacy of moving theatergoers through both traditional and progressive means. Like much of Rodgers' work with Oscar Hammerstein II in particular, Piazza tackles deceptively challenging, provocative subject matter with an emotional intensity that flirts with, but ultimately transcends, sentimentality.
Guettel and librettist Craig Lucas (Reckless, Prelude to a Kiss) adapted Piazza from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Set in 1953, the story focuses on Margaret Johnson, a middle-aged woman of obvious means who travels to Italy with her daughter, Clara, a curiously childlike beauty in her 20s.
When Clara catches the eye of a good-looking young Florentine named Fabrizio, Margaret's eagerness to thwart the romance might be puzzling at first. The guy seems like a perfect gentleman, and Margaret, who is as warm and devoted to Clara as she is elegant and prudent, clearly isn't a candidate for the dramatic pantheon of jealous, manipulative mothers who begrudge their adult daughters happiness.
Gradually, though, Margaret reveals her reasons, accounting for Clara's quirky behavior and the unusually close bond that has formed between the women as a result. Piazza becomes a story not just about women and men or parents and children, but about the most difficult and demanding aspects of love: learning how to accept, how to trust and how to let go.
Like the best musical theater writers, Guettel writes songs that ponder these questions and propel the plot rather than just cutely embellish it. His tunes aren't as accessible as those familiar with his lineage - but unfamiliar with his previous work - might expect. But his dissonant, sometimes meandering melodies offer moments of exquisite grace and yearning.
They are exquisitely handled, too, by both leading ladies. As Clara, Kelli O'Hara, whose sweet presence and bright soprano have been wasted on such turkeys as Dracula and The Sweet Smell of Success, flowers as radiantly as her character. And Victoria Clark imbues Margaret with a mix of poise and depth seldom seen in contemporary musical productions.
Matthew Morrison's moonstruck Fabrizio, similarly, conveys a sense of unaffected longing and wonder, rare among today's hunky leading-man types. Though the cast isn't flawless - Sarah Uriarte Berry's performance as Fabrizio's insecure sister-in-law could, for instance, drop a few notches on the shrillness meter - most flourish under Bartlett Sher's sensitive direction.
Surely, the actors are all grateful to have something substantial to sink their teeth into. We should be, too,