The new Arena Stage production of Lucas and Guettel’s The Light on the Piazza downscales this Tony Award-winning Broadway-style show to fit its currently available space. The result? A bare-bones version of the original that still retains much of its charm and intimacy thanks to its marvelous cast.
Piazza actually began its life as a popular short novel based in Florence by author Elizabeth Spencer (1960). The book soon begat an eponymous, warmly forgettable 1962 movie version. Perhaps its producers hoped to cash in on the earlier success of another Italian-themed film idyll, “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954). Nonetheless, the film version of Piazza boasted a surprisingly A-list cast that included Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, attractive, young Yvette Mimieux, and a dapper would-be matinee idol named George Hamilton in his pre-Linda Bird Johnson days.
Both the novel and the movie revolve around the misadventures of American tourists Margaret and Clara Johnson as they vacation in sunny Italy circa 1953. Mom Margaret is hoping to recapture long ago memories of her Italian honeymoon with husband Roy, a no-nonsense North Carolina tobacco exec. He is, of course, too busy to accompany Margaret and 20-something daughter Clara on something so frivolous as a nostalgic holiday.
Pretty, girlishly enthusiastic Clara is the kind of sweet, innocent American girl that any guy would fall for in a New York minute—particularly if he’s a dashing Italian dude named Fabrizio Naccarelli. Margaret does her best to put obstacles in the young would-be lovers’ way. But it’s not necessarily because Fabrizio is a dapper and probably-not-to-be-trusted Italian Lothario. No, it seems there’s a dark secret about Clara that Margaret’s trying to conceal, apparently for the good of everyone. Complications ensue.
Seemingly forgotten for decades, Spencer’s material had the good fortune to find favor with Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel early in our current century. The team transformed her story into a warm yet emotionally brittle musical that won great favor—and copped 8 Tony Awards—during its successful run at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2005-2006. Many simply adored Guettel’s unique score and his clever lyrics that seemed to spring organically from Lucas’ retro-Romantic adaptation. But some groused that the show and its 50’s-style attitudes were somewhat dated and were disappointed in its lack of toe-tapping tunes. Like many things in life, it’s all a matter of taste.
Swapping out the orchestra for a minimalist chamber ensemble and economizing on the set–a kind of plain vanilla Italian villa that’s occasionally transformed via projected scenery–director Molly Smith aims to create a more intimate version of the show. In this she largely succeeds, although her economy-sized iteration will almost certainly disappoint aficionados of the decidedly more lush Broadway version.
But functionally, at least, director Molly Smith’s choices make practical sense. Once an old-style movie theater, the Arena’s Crystal City theater lacks the backstage space to house a more elaborate physical setting, not to mention the room for accommodating a decent-sized orchestra. It’s hard to criticize a director for adapting to reality.
There’s another interesting twist here. The composer had initially conceived of this show as more of a “chamber musical” than a big-time Broadway production despite the latter’s notable New York success. You could say with some justice that Molly Smith is actually transforming adversity into an advantage by taking her production back to the future. And her concept generally works.
Except for the placement of the musicians. They’re perched precariously high atop the set and close to the rafters. Since their narrow performance space also lacks a railing, one can’t help but glance up anxiously from time to time, hoping to avoid witnessing a real-time theatrical disaster.
The Light in the Piazza is not an old-style Broadway show. It’s not Oklahoma, Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific, or West Side Story, although the score pays subtle homage to this older era. For all the apparently predictability of its romance, Piazza is more of an intellectual musical in the style of Stephen Sondheim.
This is a show that doesn’t strive for “Billboard” hits. It simply doesn’t care. It’s like “verismo” opera which substitutes complex sung drama for the memorable showpiece arias that fell out of favor in response to the audience’s desire for something more real. Guettel’s lyrics aid and abet this verismo approach with their concision and subtlety.
Guettel’s music itself, in addition to the influence of Sondheim, gives more than a passing reference to decidedly non-Broadway types like Puccini, Alexander Scriabin, and Erich Korngold with perhaps a dash of Kurt Weill thrown in just to make it fair. It’s something you don’t expect, but it’s there.
Now, with all this having been said, how was the show itself? As one of those who never had a chance to see earlier iterations of Piazza (although I’ve actually seen the film), I’d have to say I rather enjoyed it except for worrying about the musicians’ liability coverage.
Again, the sets were a little dry, the space lacking in warmth. But like the Washington National Opera, which had to adapt the cavern otherwise known as Constitution Hall to Verdi and Wagner while the KenCen Opera House underwent renovation, you have to cut the home team a little slack when they’re in exile.
Fortunately, Arena’s beyond-excellent cast was largely able to overcome any of this production’s physical shortcomings.
Topping the list was veteran performer Hollis Resnik as Margaret Johnson. Coming across initially as shallow and irritating, Resnik’s Margaret transforms before our eyes into a complex and involved wife, mother, and human being. She’s forced to grow quickly but responds to the challenge, becoming in the process the emotional heart and soul of the show.
And you can really see this happen in “Dividing Day,” the pivotal song of the show in which Margaret suddenly realizes that her marriage is effectively over. At this point, her mind begins to shift. She eventually becomes her daughter’s advocate rather than her guardian, even though greater challenges are yet to come.
If George Orwell had witnessed Resnik’s performance this weekend, he might have pronounced it “double-plus good.” And her vocal skills are top notch, too, including some of the best phrasing I’ve ever heard from any singer anywhere.
As daughter Clara, Margaret Anne Florence is bright, youthful, refreshing—and occasionally scary, as befits her unusual role as the show’s charming but mysteriously-flawed heroine. Her vocal skills seemed a bit uncertain early in the first act of the show. But she seemed to gain confidence as the evening progressed. By the time the second act rolled around, she’d acquired a lovely bloom to her voice and all was well.
As the dashing yet boyish Fabrizio, Nicholas Rodriguez did a superb job in a role that can be a little difficult to pull off. Lacking almost entirely in English language skills throughout much of the first act, his character still manages to communicate effectively to Clara—and to us—by emphasizing his simple Italian sentences that help non-Italian speakers to pick up nine-tenths of his meaning. That’s quite a feat without the help of operatic surtitles.
His strong, clear voice adds significant romantic panache and passion to his role. And, as I’m sure the ladies will agree, it doesn’t hurt that he’s quite a hunk, either, particularly when he loses his shirt at the end of Act I. (More on this later.)
Although they have smaller roles, the remaining cast members helped round out a superb ensemble, starting with Ken Krugman as Signor Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s dad and paterfamilias to the hyperactive Naccarelli clan. Krugman’s Naccarelli Sr. is suave, stylish, and vocally assured, particularly in pivotal duet with Margaret as they try to resolve their critical Act II impasse.
Nice performances by the rest of the Nacarellis as well, including Jonathan Raviv as older brother Giuseppe; Ariela Morganstern as the bitter-tongued Franca, who’s nonetheless capable of surprising growth; and Mary Gutzi as Mama Naccarelli who gets an extra hat tip for her superb comic timing at just the right point in the show.
A nod, too, to Thomas Adrian Simpson for his brief turn (via long distance telephone) as Roy Johnson. In probably not more than a dozen lines, he leads us to quickly understand why he and Margaret have issues.
Kudos to the large supporting crew for this production, particularly to Costume Designer Linda J. Cho. My lovely wife Fran, who’s an expert in such things, pronounced Margaret and Clara’s 1950s Southern-style dress confections to be stylish, attractive, and totally period-authentic.
Congrats to the aforementioned small chamber ensemble. While not a full orchestra, they did generally grasp and manage to convey the shimmering, at times quasi-impressionistic music of the original. They coordinated quite well with the cast under the direction of Paul Sportelli who also handled the keyboard.
Brickbats? A few.
Did I mention the placement of the musicians?
Michael Gilliam’s lighting design was occasionally sepulchral. Hey, this is supposed to be LIGHT in the Piazza, right?
A lesser issue: at the close of Act I, Fabrizio and Clara generate some pretty heated chemistry when he ends up alone in Clara’s hotel room by accident. (Seriously.) That’s when Clara helps him lose his shirt—but that’s all the farther it goes. A touch more passion wouldn’t have been out of line. On the other hand, this is a 1953 period piece, and that’s probably about as far as this would have gone back then in an era when all TV married couples slept in twin beds.
While I find ticket prices for the Arena’s production of The Light in the Piazza a tad dear, given its minimalist approach, many theatergoers may still appreciate the subtlety and the intellectual challenges of this very Sondheim-like show. An added plus is the show’s interesting score, which contains undercurrents and allusions that classical music fans will genuinely appreciate. Is this really chamber opera? Time will tell.
The Light in the Piazza
Book by Craig Lucas (based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer). Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel.
Directed by Molly Smith
Musical staging and choreography by Parker Esse.
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
The Light in the Piazza is due to close April 11, 2010.
THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA