The Light in the Piazza
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 22, 2005
Great musicals typically get me in the gut. The Light in the Piazza—the finest new musical to reach Broadway in a very very long time—did something different: it hit me squarely in the heart.
It's a story about hope in the face of alarming and escalating evidence to the contrary—a show that says we can believe in a miracle to set us free, to redeem us, even when we know that it probably can't, probably won't. It's also—and this is why it's such a welcome breath of fresh air!—a show that says to audiences: we trust you, we respect you: we know you're grown-ups and you've lived in the world and you're going to follow us wherever we go: we don't need to pummel you into submission or resort to cheap theatrics to keep you entranced. And so, more hope—for the always tenuous existence of American musical theatre.
It begins in Florence, in 1953, a city just re-emerging from the terrors of Mussolini and World War II, a place nevertheless of nurturing history and spectacular beauty. We discover all of this in the opening moments of Piazza, from the expression on Victoria Clark's face as she makes her first entrance, clearly enthralled by whatever it is she's looking at—we don't literally see it, but she makes it real and vivid to us—and from Adam Guettel's evocative music, Michael Yeargan's gloriously spare set, and Christopher Akerlind's warm, glowing lights, which collaborate to create a stunning stage picture that stimulates our imaginations to locate this implied splendor.
Clark plays Margaret Johnson, the wife of a wealthy North Carolina tobacco company executive. She's on vacation in Italy with her adult daughter Clara (played by Kelli O'Hara, who is radiant in the role). The plan seems to be to revisit a passel of places where Margaret and her husband Roy spent their honeymoon, long before the War; but nothing goes according to plan on this trip. For almost immediately, a young Italian named Fabrizio Naccarelli (Matthew Morrison, youthful charm and exuberance personified) sees Clara and, as far as we can tell, falls head-over-heels. They meet in the piazza and when her hat blows off her head (a wonderful moment!) he retrieves it for her. Soon, he's everywhere: if they go to the museum, then he goes to the museum; if they happen upon a particular sidewalk cafe, so does he. He's dogged in his pursuit, and so against her better judgment, the protective Margaret gives in. She and Clara meet Fabrizio's family—his domineering father (Mark Harelik), who runs a men's tie business; his devoted mother (Patti Cohenour); his flighty older brother Giuseppe (Michael Berresse) and his unhappy sister-in-law Franca (Sarah Uriarte Berry). It is clear that Clara and Fabrizio are in love, and Margaret loves what that love might mean for both her daughter and herself.
And so, against her even better judgment, she lets the romance run its course. As a great playwright once said, such a course never did run smooth—and so there's an interlude in Rome, where the women temporarily escape Fabrizio's ardor; and there are passionate leaps ahead and disturbing steps backward after they return to Florence. There are excellent rational reasons why Margaret should rein Clara and Fabrizio in, and she knows them; but we're always aware—and this is tribute both to authors Guettel and Craig Lucas, who wrote the book, and to Clark's spectacularly smart performance—that Margaret never stops weighing her options. If I surrender to fate, or destiny, or irresponsibility, or whatever you want to call it, she seems to be thinking, am I really responsible for the consequences? It all comes together in a surprisingly affecting final song called "Fable," the name she gives to love; one of the wondrous things about this show is that it never comes together until that point, which is to say that everything that happens here—as in a person's life, one might argue—is absolutely necessary. Even the slow parts, even the sad parts; perhaps especially those.
Lucas's book is remarkable in its sophistication. He lets his characters think out loud and, with Guettel, makes them sing when emotion overtakes them. In this way, we take this life-changing journey with Margaret, with an immediacy and vibrancy that feels just about unparalleled in my theatrical memory.
Guettel's score—his first on Broadway—contains some lovely songs (no recitative!), including "The Beauty Is," which introduces us to Clara; "Passeggiata," a gorgeous ensemble number in which Clara and Fabrizio have what amounts to their first date, walking arm-in-arm through the streets of Florence; "Say it Somehow," and "Love to Me," both love songs for Fabrizio; "Let's Walk," a wistful duet for Margaret and Signor Naccarelli; and the disarmingly brief title song. If his lyrics don't always have the specificity that we'd wish for, his melodies soar and transport us. Significantly, his and Lucas's contributions fit together seamlessly, entirely of a piece.
The show itself has been mounted splendidly by Lincoln Center Theater. Bartlett Sher's staging feels flawless, especially in several mood-defining scenes that conjure the whole of Florence with deft economy. Jonathan Butterell's musical staging—which includes a few hints of tantalizing dance breezily executed by Berresse and Morrison—is fine. Piazza is the most visually arresting show I have seen in years: Yeargan and Akerlind always suggest rather than show, with breathtaking subtlety and elegance. Catherine Zuber's chic, appropriate costumes are the perfect complement, providing brilliant flashes of color and reinforcing what we know about the personalities of the people wearing them, from the amatory high fashion/Lollabrigida look of the frustrated Franca to the fresh pastels of Fabrizio and Clara.
In the end, when all was done, I found myself profoundly touched; Piazza pushes beyond what makes sense into a realm of ineffable and probably untenable optimism. It is at once lovely and dangerous, foolish and wise: after everything is lost, why not hope?