As a tale of love, the Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza has a number of things going for it, including some intricate relationship dynamics, a thrillingly inventive and complex score by Adam Guettel, and a couple of wonderful voices. But as it appears on the Palace Theatre stage, the entire package ends up wedged somewhat uncomfortably in the continuum between a Jane Austen novel and a Harlequin paperback.
Based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, it's about an American mother and adult daughter doing the tourist thing in Florence in 1953. In a trice, 26-year-old Clara is hit on by local boy Fabrizio, and there ensue all the deliriously engaging aspects of young love -- including conflicted parents and the collision of two cultures.
Though the young couple is the centerpiece, the story hinges on Clara's mother Margaret, since she acts both as protector of her daughter's fragile state (more about that shortly) and as a person seeking to deal with her loveless marriage to Roy, who has stayed back at their home in North Carolina. As Clara and Fabrizio's love jones grows, Margaret also finds herself interacting with Fab's suave daddy, Signor Naccarelli, and thinking of her own unfulfilled romantic dreams.
Unfortunately, in this production the role of Margaret is being played by understudy Jane Brockman, a performer with a serviceable voice, but a limited acting range that constricts her from exploring many of the emotional nuances of the piece. From Margaret's first appearance onstage, when she is supposed to be suffused with the glory of Florence, Brockman looks more like she needs a couple of Zantacs and a long nap. This casting shortcoming unfortunately affects almost all the scenes and prevents the show from reaching the heights it might otherwise attain.
But there are still some undeniable pleasures in this evening. First among them are the music and lyrics by Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers and an immense talent in his own right. It's almost insufficient to refer to these musical pieces as just songs, since the level of complexity Guettel works at is so remarkable.
In the lovely solo "The Beauty Is," Clara reveals much about her character in subtle ways. When she touches a male statue's penis and trills, "It's the land of naked marble boys/Something we don't see a lot in Winston-Salem/That's the land of corduroys," we get the sense that something is a bit askew with Clara. As Margaret tries to explain to the Naccarelli clan, Clara is "young for her age," and the reason for that is hidden for a while.
The budding romance progresses fairly predictably in the book written by Craig Lucas, but Guettel's music continues to enthrall. His skill is shown especially in the ensemble numbers, such as "Passeggiata," in which Fabrizio sings his feelings to Clara in broken English ("Now is/I am happiness/With you"). By employing surprising compositional zigzags and a few atonal touches, Guettel crafts a dense and intriguing musical universe for the show.
The role of Clara is handled with panache by Elena Shaddow, who sings beautifully and has the right mix of naïveté and purposefulness. As Fabrizio, David Burnham looks every inch the Florentine stud-cannoli, and he almost stops the show with his impassioned interpretation of "Il Mondo Era Vuoto." No translation is required to figure out what he thinks of his new object of amore. David Ledingham lends a nice gloss of macho strength as Signor Naccarelli, and Jonathan Hammond and Wendy Bergamini offer some much-needed comic relief as Fabrizio's brother and sister-in-law.
The basic story, however, seems unworthy of its musical accompaniment. Clara's problem seems both too trivial and too profound to find a natural place in the romantic tale as it is presented here. When she falls in love, is it a cause for celebration or concern? This is the core conflict that Margaret is battling, but it is insufficiently explored in this treatment.
In addition, Mama Naccarelli illogically breaks the fourth wall (she confides to the audience, "I don't speak English, but I have to tell you something"), apparently just for a cheap laugh. And there's a key plot twist in the second act that interrupts the marriage plans of Clara and her Italian stallion, except that it's so silly that it trivializes the characters and their real challenges.
But if you relish innovative music and lush staging -- the pivoting and towering set pieces designed by Michael Yeargan and the soft, golden lighting by Christopher Akerlind capture Italy charmingly -- this is a theatrical experience offering sufficient delights.