Sacramento audiences will give a standing ovation to just about anything, I have discovered over the past seven years. The audience at the Community Theater did not give a standing ovation to “Light in the Piazza,” the final musical of this year’s Broadway Series.
Several people did not return after intermission and one woman, passing me on her way out said “We’ve had enough.”
“Well, ya don’t come out singin’ anything,” commented a woman behind me walking out of the theater.
“It was....uh...different,” said a grandfatherly type to his granddaughter.
“Light in the Piazza,” based on a 1950s novella by Elizabeth Spencer and made into a non-musical movie in 1952 (with Olivia DeHavilland, Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton and Rossano Brazzi), is the winner of 6 Tony awards, including best original score.
It tells the story Margaret Johnson (Christine Andreas), traveling through Italy with her daughter Clara (Katie Rose Clarke) and the romance between Clara and a young Florentine, Fabrizio Naccarelli (David Burnham). Margaret wants to introduce her daughter to the places that she visited with her husband Roy (John Procaccino) on their honeymoon ... and perhaps recapture the magic of that time, since the joy seems to have gone out of her marriage, we gradually discover through telephone calls home to the husband throughout the show.
Katie Rose Clark made her Broadway debut in the role of Clara, and she is lovely in it. She beautifully portrays the sense of a woman, much too young for her years and we gradually begin to realize that all is not right with Clara.
Burnham exudes Italian sexuality as he falls madly, hopelessly in love with Clara on first meeting.
Margaret tries to prevent a romance from developing, for reasons which are made clear later in the show, but gets swept up in the blossoming love of Clara and Fabrizio as well as the boy’s expansive family – his father (Craig Bennett), mother (Diana DiMarzio), philandering brother Giuseppe (Jonathan Hammond), and Giuseppe’s wife Franca (Wendi Bergamini), all of whom are captivated by Clara.
Emotional undertones drive this story, with Margaret’s anguish about Clara, her desire to control the girl’s life for fear she cannot control herself, and her desire to let her daughter have the normal life she feared would never be possible.
This is a visually beautiful show, with sets by Michael Yeargan and complementary earth toned costumes by Catherine Zuber.
The story is sweet, but the distortions of the amplification system (perhaps it was just where we were sitting) made it sometimes difficult to follow, especially when the women were singing. The authors (Craig Lucas, book and Adam Guettel, music and lyrics) have crafted a show which has the feel of an old-fashioned musical, relying on a simple story instead of the flashy special effects of some of the Disney-based musicals of recent years.
Guettel’s music has been compared to Sondheim in its sophistication. There are truly beautiful musical moments, such as Clara’s rendition of the title song, and many, especially when sung in Italian, have an almost operatic quality. (The one jarring moment of the evening is during “Aiutami,” an animated, operatic multi-person song in Italian, when Signora Niccarelli steps into the spotlight in speaks to the audience in unaccented English – which she admits she does not speak – to explain what is going on in the song. It seemed out of character with the rest of the show.)
But unless you have been listening to the endless television promos for this show, you will not find yourself remembering any of the songs once the cast has left the stage.
For all of its good points there was just something “off” about this show for me (and apparently for others in the audience). Perhaps a lot of it had to do with the inability to understand, not only the Italian (a libretto or supertitles might be needed!), but also the exposure done in song in English.
There is also a basic dislike of the storyline which, though lovely in its concept of love conquering all, involves a bit of deceit on the part of the mother and leaves the audience with even more of a question about the “happily ever after” of the young lovers.