Produced by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
You either love the mother. Or you hate her. But by the end of The Light in the Piazza, you love the mother because she’s transformed into something warmly human. This simple love story is a deep psychological journey about the seasons of love. The characters are complex. It’s Romeo and Juliet or Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story with an ambiguous ending.
This 2005 Lincoln Center production, directed by Bartlett Sher, won six Tony awards (one for Best Musical) and enjoyed a run of 504 performances on Broadway. Now, the touring company of The Light in the Piazza is playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House until January 7.
In 1953, an American mother, Margaret Johnson, from Winston Salem, North Carolina, is in the winter stages of a dying marriage. She takes her 26 year old daughter to Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. As in a Henry James novel, this story explores the clash between Americans and the residents of an old world culture. Except that in this story by Elizabeth Spencer, adapted by script writer Craig Lucas, everyone benefits and grows.
The award winning sets are as lush as the music to set us back in time. The proscenium curtain gives us a sepia-toned view of Brunescelli’s Duomo of Santa Maria Basilica in a cityscape of Florence. When the curtain rises, Michael Yeargan’s open colonnades and corner cafes, lit in golden light, range from brownish-orange terra cottas to soft tangerines.
Clara, the daughter, in today’s world would be called “a special child.” When Clara loses her hat in a breeze, she meets and falls in love with a young, Italian charmer at first sight. Fabrizio sees Clara in the moment, as expressed in the broken English lyrics: “Now is I am Happiness/Never I am Unhappiness/Now is I am happiness with you.” Fabrizio envisions Clara as an ideally beautiful woman, younger than her chronological age. He sees what Leonardo da Vinci might envision as a Madonna, an angel or a Venus.
In 1945, when Richard Rodgers wrote the songs about lovers brought together by fate for Carousel, he took the American musical to a new level of dramatic power. Now, his grandson, song writer/lyricist Adam Guettel, follows the family tradition with The Light in the Piazza but turns story-telling into another breakthrough.
The lyrics are unique in that entire scenes are in Italian or broken English. The Naccarellis, the Florentine family, sing-speak several scenes in Italian without subtitles or translation. But most scenes are in English, like the Act II title song “The Light in the Piazza” sung by Clara. When Elena Shaddow as Clara sings about first love, when love is a pain in the heart and a heightened awareness of life everywhere in everything, that inarticulate moment soars. Whether in English or Italian, in whatever stage of life, love transcends language barriers. And composer Guettel makes his music, sometimes open-vowel singing or sometimes atonal, dissonant orchestration, expressive of a character’s mood in the moment.
The overall structure is unique. Dialogue and musical numbers flow seamlessly to advance the plot. But instead of a stage filled with chorus lines and show stopping production numbers, the dramatic action and music come to an abrupt stop for an intensely private, quiet moment. Margaret, the mother, played sensitively by Christine Andreas, steps out of the scene and reveals her guilt about the fateful day of the accident. Clara was kicked in the head by a pony as a 10-year old, an injury that damaged her brain and arrested her maturation. It’s a shocking revelation that raises our admiration for the mother.
At critical moments, however, spoken revelations lose their emotional power in the impersonal grandeur of the Kennedy Center Opera House. When Margaret and Signor Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s father, (David Ledingham) sing the duet, “Passeggiata,” the two parents are breaking down their cultural expectations, shedding their biases like a winter coat. What they share in common is the desire for their children to be happy. Suddenly, as Naccarelli guides Margaret to her hotel, physical attraction takes over. They kiss. Then there’s a long tense moment, accompanied by the low roll of a snare drum. Will Margaret in midlife realize the romantic passion, “the deep well of feeling,” she’s never had in her marriage? This passionate highpoint, that remains unresolved, played better on the thrust stage in New York’s more intimate, Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center.
But this musical comes into its own as an elevated myth or allegory. All the characters are on a quest for something-happiness, love, fulfillment. Every character matures in reaction to their encounters with Clara. As the daughter’s romance develops with Fabrizio, Margaret faces her private pain, lets go of her biases and decides that her handicapped daughter is better off happy than lonely. “Just because she’s handicapped doesn’t mean she has to be lonely,” she tells her doubting husband.
Far from being second string, the touring performers are uniformly strong. Several are from the original Broadway cast. Laura Griffith sizzles as Franca, the frustrated, cynical-but-wise sister-in-law who yearns to rekindle her passion with Giuseppe, the other Naccarelli son, well played with comic timing by Jonathan Hammond. They are the pair who exemplify the hot summer season of love. In the cooling, autumnal stage of love, Diane Sutherland plays Senora Naccarelli, the peace keeping Italian mother, now partnered with David Ledingham, as Senor Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s father.
David Burnham, as the adolescent boy, Fabrizio, lends a purity and innocence in his coltish but utterly charming hesitations and advances. Christine Andreas, with operatic strength, shades her songs with dignity and nuance. Her Margaret Johnson is a woman with a spine of iron. Brian Sutherland, who is new as Roy Johnson, her husband, aptly projects a southern gentleman’s reserve and hauteur.
Realistically speaking, however, to what extent is Clara brain damaged? The American mother and father continue to treat her like a handicapped person. But isn’t the brain capable of repair? Is Clara’s impulsive childlike behavior as an adult caused by her brain injury or a bad self image?
The script implies that Clara’s transformation is because Frabrizio loves her as she is. His struggle to learn English helps him understand Clara’s handicap, which is not inherited but the result of a tragic accident. But would Clara really be capable of taking care of a child, as the Italian family hopes? Cultural fusion might make the marriage work. Different cultures can merge for mutual benefit. In an Italian family, everyone takes care of everybody else; someone is always there. But even if Clara is physically healthy, will the lover’s young love last through all the seasons of marriage? That last unresolved question seems answered by Margaret’s last number, “Fables.” With outreaching arms, she tells us that love is a fable, a myth, that you have to keep looking for and recreating: “Love, if you can and be loved/May it last forever, Clara./The light in the Piazza.” The risk is worth taking.
The national touring production of The Light in the Piazza continues through Sunday, January 7, 2007, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Performances: Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. There will be an additional performance on Wednesday, January 3 at 1:30 p.m. No evening performance on Sunday, Janaury 7. The evening performance on New Year’s Eve, Sunday, December 31, will begin at 8:30 p.m. Tickets range in price from $25 to $94, now on sale at the Kennedy Center box office or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600. Tickets for the 8:30 p.m. performance on December 31, include entrance to the Grand Foyer Party for $60 to $150. Outside the Washington metropolitan area, dial toll-free at (800) 444-1324.