In the Tony glow of "Hairspray", with its day-glow colors and AM radio sensibility, it's a special pleasure to be given a musical as subtle and disciplined as a classical watercolor. Based on Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novel of Americans finding love in the special light of Florence, this World Premiere musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel is the first musical Intiman has ever produced. It's an artistic triumph, exquisitely conceived and executed, brilliantly performed and profoundly satisfying.
Playwright and Director Craig Lucas holds tightly to the romantic heart of this story, adds his own wit and theatrical expertise, and retains the original's tone of romantic mystery. The stellar cast creates distinctive and convincing characterizations while keeping the multiple storylines clear, and the relationships rich and rewarding. This is a milieu in which love is pure, but never simple, abundant but not easily attained, essential and inexpressibly precious. The sweet, old-fashioned story avoids ever being sappy or sentimental, but neither is it cynical.
The composer and lyricist, Adam Guettel, isn't content to add music to the telling of his story, but rather finds the music within the story. With great variety and a wealth of influences, he has devised a satisfying and lyric score that seamlessly advances the story, and enriches our understanding of each character's inner drama.
Clara Johnson, an unusually child-like young woman, comes to Italy with her Mother, Margaret, on vacation. She meets a young man, Fabrizio, and they instantly fall in love. Of course, true love never runs smoothly, and the resistance from her Mother, from her Father back in America, and from Fabrizio's family (Mother, Father, older brother and his wife) constitute the play's external obstacles. The internal obstacles are present in the full spectrum of love's many shades, and in the role that love plays in their lives. One of the great achievements of Lucas' script is the unstated thesis that love is the only true center around which life is built, and that one can only measure personal success in relation to that center.
Victoria Clark, as Clara's mother, Margaret, stands out in a cast of outstanding performers. She has a restrained dignity that grounds the action, while making romantic emancipation even more urgent and vivid. In the telephone scenes with her distant husband Roy (Robert Shampain) it's touchingly clear that with this trip she's moved much more than a world away, and when she determines in the end that she won't be returning, it's the only possible decision. As Clara, Celia Keenan-Bolger makes her naivete so innocent and appealing that it seems almost unnatural, but that also serves the play's design. Her first-act song, "The Beauty Is" was one of the finer moments in this always lovely score. Her romance with Fabrizio, charmingly played by Steven Pasquale, is definitive young love, and entirely convincing. When Fabrizio sings the gorgeous "Passeggiata", we recognize that this inestimable gift of romance is in precisely the right hands, and that he can be trusted with Clara's heart. A surprising amount of the show, both musical and dramatic, is in Italian, and it only affirms the mystery and foreign beauty of the milieu. That mystery is presented in so many ways.
For example, when the young couple first meet, Clara is wearing a broad-brimmed hat, and a breeze catches it and floats it, slow-motion, across the stage and into the hands of Fabrizio. It's a wonderful technical effect, but far more than that, it is a magical moment that symbolizes all that we need to know about why these two are fated for each other. Nothing in the play's later complications can ever supercede that irreducibly magic moment. It's purely theatrical, purely Craig Lucas, and held aloft on Guettel's gorgeous music, purely the idiom of this particular show. The author's have said that one of their attractions to the original novel was the way Spencer left out just the right key information. One of their goals in adapting it to the stage was to judge equally well what had to be left out in order to retain the aura of the fantastic. They have. These people live in an illumination as brilliant and intangible as light itself, and that becomes the constant metaphor of love.
Nowhere is that range of emotional experience more evident than in Fabrizio's family. The family consists of his father, played with mature insight by Mark Harelik, the superb Patti Cohenour as his mother, the emotionally compromised older brother Guiseppe (Glenn Seven Allen) and his disillusioned wife Franca (powerfully played by Kelli O'Hara). The act-two opener "Aiutami" is a complex, dramatically sophisticated piece of exposition, made into a purely entertaining musical number. Franca's bittersweet "The Joy You Feel" plumbs the depths of love and loss. Frankly, there wasn't a weak number in this show, and my only musical quibble is that the sound balance on the night I saw it sometimes made the lyrics difficult to hear. Rarely have I heard a show in which the music was more perfectly suited to the material, or more dramatically integrated.
The physical production meets the high challenge of the material. The exquisite set design, by Loy Arcenas, uses sliding panels of sheer, gold-marbled material against a gold-marbled backdrop, with suggestive set pieces downstage. It's quite brilliant. The costumes by Catherine Zuber celebrate the best of late 50's continental style, and add to the production's physical elan. The four-piece orchestra (piano, violin, cello and harp), beautifully conducted by Ted Sperling, is positioned up-left, so we are always aware of the presence of music in this world, and in these lives.
"The Light in the Piazza" is one of the most sophisticated, emotionally and dramatically well-realized shows I've seen. It's a reminder that high art can be both accessible and infinitely complex, that a simple love story is still among the most difficult tales to tell, and that artists like Lucas and Guettel can still deliver a piece that touches the heart, challenges the mind, and both enriches and engages our experience.
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