Adam Guettel's award-winning Broadway musical The Light in the Piazza lacks some of the bells and whistles (not to mention helicopters and chandeliers) that have become the calling cards for recent hit shows, especially those on tour to cities across the U.S. It's driven by everyday characters addressing life's challenges life — a loveless marriage, a flawed child, a thwarted romance.
Audiences loved Piazza in New York in 2005 at Lincoln Center (following premiere productions in Seattle and Chicago). It's just begun its national tour; Cincinnati is the second stop after San Francisco.
On opening night at the Aronoff Center, a lighter-than-usual audience was likely wondering what some of the fuss was about because this subtle show never quite took off. Piazza is about an awkward juxtaposition of new- and old-world values: An overprotective American mother, Margaret Johnson (Christine Andreas), and her daughter Clara (Elena Shaddow) are touring Italian cities in 1953. A chance encounter brings together Clara and Fabrizio (David Burnham), a romantic young Italian. Margaret tries to come between them because Clara, as she carefully puts it, is "very young for her age."
But Margaret has her own reasons to steer clear of love: Her marriage to Clara's father has become an empty shell. Only when she sees the young couple's depth of feeling, despite the challenges they might face, does Margaret give in to the hope that her daughter might find something she's lost.
Love! Love if you can, oh my Clara," Margaret sings to her daughter, whose name means "clear" or "bright" in Italian. "Love if you can, and be loved."
It's a charming story, beautifully told in this production, which is physically suffused with sunlight, a glow that bathes scenes in squares, churches, shops and homes in Florence and Rome. Christopher Akerlind's lighting design and Michael Yeargan's sets contribute as much to the telling of the story as any character. Fluid, cinematic scene changes keep the show's pace brisk and effortless: Stone arches and walls slide smoothly and reconfigure, while tables, chairs, a cabinet of ties in Fabrizio's family's shop and a hotel bed provide scenic details.
Piazza has been rightfully praised for its lush score, but the economics of touring musicals have reduced the orchestra in the Aronoff Center pit to five musicians. Even with electronic augmentation, they aren't enough.
It's sad that such corners are cut with Piazza, because Guettel's beautiful score suffers. Not only does it sound thin, too often the accompaniment is over-amplified, muddying the singing of the cast or individual performers. The humor is missed in "The Beauty Is" (when Clara sings about being in the land of "naked marble boys"), and the restrained passion of Fabrizio's breathtaking "Love to Me" is almost entirely lost.
Shaddow is fresh and impetuous as Clara. It's a complex role that must vacillate between simple joy and more complex frustration; Shaddow handles it convincingly, and her singing is lovely. Burnham captures Fabrizio's romantic passion especially well in several numbers he sings in Italian. (No subtitles are used, but there's no doubt about his passion.)
But Andreas, who has been nominated for multiple Tony Awards, never seems to find her balance as Margaret. She begins the show with a thick Southern accent (Margaret is from North Carolina) that comes and goes. We never get inside her emotional existence, despite several confessional speeches directly to the audience.
What's more, her singing too often slips into an unexpected dissonant tone that undermines Margaret's necessary warmth. If we don't care about her, the light in Piazza dims.
This show wins audiences slowly with its subtle emotions and simple story. I wish this touring production had a few degrees more immediacy and warmth (and more musicians). As it is, many people will come to it with doubts and leave feeling unengaged.
That's a shame. The Light in the Piazza deserves better treatment. Grade: B+
THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, presented by Broadway Across America, continues at the Aronoff Center's Procter and Gamble Hall through Sunday.