Light in the Piazza

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

It is hardly surprising that Adam Guettel’s Light in the Piazza has moved from the Broadway stage to an opera house. The vocal demands of the score push the boundaries of the conventional Broadway musical and, like many modern American operas,  Guettel is more interested in musicalizing the emotional journey of his characters than creating toe-tapping numbers. Not to mention that there are entire scenes performed in Italian.

Nor is it astonishing that Renee Fleming, having retired from her Marschallins and Countesses, would be interested in playing Piazza’s leading lady, Margaret Johnson. Victoria Clark won a well-deserved Tony for her multi-layered performance of the protective mother who learns that love may be enough to ensure her daughter’s happiness.

Fleming has already performed in both a play and a musical revival on Broadway, but playing Margaret offers the kind of dramatic and vocal challenges that would appeal to both Fleming and her fans. LA Opera is the first American stop for this production which originated in England.

The grandson of Richard Rodgers and the son of Mary Rodgers, composer Guettel is American Musical Theatre royalty. When Piazza opened at Lincoln Center in 2005, he was best known for his stark, but hauntingly beautiful score for Floyd Collins. Piazza’s melodramatic story was based on a novella and a technicolor tearjerker. It seemed an odd choice for the composer, but Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas fashioned a surprisingly tender and restrained version of this odd vacation love story centered in 1950’s Florence.

Director Daniel Evans, a memorable George in Sunday in the Park with George a decade or so ago, makes some questionable directorial choices that hobble both his cast and the production. Evans seems determined to strip away the magic in the show, whether because he finds the story too sentimental or simply wants to make his mark on the piece is unclear.

First, there is the matter of Robert Jones’ massive and inert set. Piazza is a piece which quickly moves from a museum gallery, to a street in Florence, to a hotel bedroom, even to the ruins of the Capitol in Rome. Jones’  detailed street scene and staircase have the look of a set designed on a turntable, but the revolve to a new vista never happens. A simpler, lighter setting wouldn’t clash so much with the book’s filmic style, nor would it destroy the young lovers’ true Romeo and Juliet moment, forcing the passionate, young Italian, Fabrizio (Rob Houchen), to walk into Clara’s (Dove Cameron) bedroom rather than scaling her balcony.

Evans amplifies the laughs in the show, coarsening the admittedly slight drama, and he makes the one miraculous moment pedestrian. Clara only meets Fabrizio when a gust of wind blows her hat into the air and he catches it. Evans has a chorus member snatch the hat off her head and pass it down the line till someone deposits it in Fabrizio’s hands, defying the score, the book, and, one imagines, the spirit of romance.

Fleming, sporting an eye-popping series of dresses by Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel, is an eminently likable Margaret, and she throws herself completely into the character of the worried mother looking after a special needs daughter. In order to contrast with Clara’s youthful soprano, the role lies lower than Fleming sang in her prima donna day, but she acquits herself nicely. She has yet to find as much expressiveness in the spoken word as in her singing, and Margaret is a complex role with several realities. She narrates her story to the audience, she speaks to herself, and she speaks to the characters in the story she’s telling. Not every reality is clear at the moment, but she is a heroine you want to cheer, and she provides a solid anchor for the story.

Cameron is a lovely Clara, handling the score’s soaring tessitura with ease and, she too looks stunning in her outfits. She wisely makes Clara’s problem visible, without overplaying the childlike qualities, and she is surprisingly forceful in her moments of anger. Houchen’s Fabrizio Nacarelli is a real find. Handsome, youthful, and passionate, with an easily produced tone that carries emotion without a steely edge, though his Italian accent is as capricious as most of the Fabrizios I’ve seen. Brian Stokes Mitchell joins the cast in Los Angeles as Fabrizo’s father, Signor Nacarelli. The role doesn’t offer much in the way of vocal fireworks, but Mitchell certainly invests his scenes with Fleming with enough sexuality to be tempting, and his anger when calling off the wedding is palpable.

Celinde Schoenmaker tears up the stage at her every appearance. She is sexy, vibrant, full-voiced, and very angry as Fabrizio’s sister-in-law. And, while she looks astounding in her skin-tight ensembles, she does appear to have walked in from the couturier tour of Grease. Marie McLaughlin and Liam Tanne’s Signora Nacarelli and Giuseppe Nacarelli suffer the most from Evans’ forced comedy, turning their roles more into vaudeville turns.

Kimberly Grigsby conducts the LA Opera Orchestra in a detailed and shimmering reading of Guettel’s luminous score.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion    October 12 – 20, 2019