A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
‘Light in the Piazza’ by PTC (2nd review)BY: Dan Rottenberg 11.22.2009
This first-rate adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella combines elements that are more original, sensitive, personal, even courageous than we’re accustomed to find in musical theater. But The Light in the Piazza suffers from two serious flaws.
The Light in the Piazza. Book by Craig Lucas; music and lyrics by Adam Guettel; directed by Joe Calarco. Philadelphia Theatre Co. production through December 13, 2009 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard). (215) 985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
An emotional RenaissanceDAN ROTTENBERG
In European heaven, according to the joke, the police are English, the cooks are French, the engineers are German, the lovers are Italian and the organizers are Swiss. In European hell, conversely, the police are German, the cooks are English, the engineers are French, the organizers are Italian and the lovers are Swiss. Travel is broadening precisely because every culture develops different priorities; and European travel is especially broadening because so many diverse cultures sit cheek-by-jowl.
The Light In the Piazza concerns an American mother and daughter whose vacation in Florence exposes them to more Italian emotion and disorder than their corporate North Carolina roots have equipped them to handle, and the question is whether the experience will liberate them or overwhelm them. Under the spell of this Renaissance “city made of statues and stories,” Clara, the beautiful but naive and fragile daughter, falls in love with a young Italian despite the interference of her protective middle-aged mother, Margaret; and Margaret, for her part, is forced to confront the repressive shell that has long bottled up her own deep well of womanly feelings.
This adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella combines elements that are more original, sensitive, personal, even courageous than we’re accustomed to find in musical theater. I particularly liked the way the script by Craig Lucas subtly shifts our focus from the young lovers Clara and Fabrizio— the easy default subjects of most musicals— to the far more complicated emotional needs of Clara’s mother.
A few silk ties
What’s more, Philadelphia Theatre Company has staged a first-rate adaptation, using moving curtains and a few statues and archways to convey the flavor of Florentine squares, homes, hotels and businesses. (A single counter bedecked with an assortment of silk ties effectively recreates a whole haberdashery.)
The cast is uniformly excellent, with clear voices that mastered a difficult score as well as Italian dialogue. Whitney Bashor as Clara strikes just the right balance between loveliness and awkwardness. Sherri L. Edelen as Margaret manages the remarkable transition from formidable armored tank to soft and gentle woman. Among the lesser characters, Kyra Miller epitomized an entire genre of Italian woman: the chic, svelte, tempestuous wife whose blatant sexuality can’t prevent her husband from straying.
For all these reasons, I very much wanted to like The Light in the Piazza. But the show suffers from two serious flaws.
About that childhood handicap…
First, the plot took too long to develop— and, when it finally did, I found its denouement less than satisfactory. We are led to believe that Clara is emotionally handicapped due to a childhood accident; but is that really the case, or is her arrested development the result of overprotective parenting? This intriguing question is never really answered; instead we are simply invited to surrender, like Margaret, to the Italian ethos: When in doubt, follow your heart and have faith that things will work out.
As for Fabrizio’s family’s objection to his marrying Clara— that is far more contrived, and the solution far more pat.
Second, Adam Guettel’s monochromatic score contributes nothing to the moods and emotions the songs are intended to convey. Close your eyes at a Verdi opera and you will know whether joy or sorrow is transpiring on stage, even if the lyrics are sung in Italian. The score to The Light in the Piazza, by contrast, functions more like wallpaper: It fails to advance our understanding of the characters or plot, even though our eyes are wide open and the lyrics are sung in English. I found myself waiting for each song to end so I could resume the threads of the story.
At intermission, as I caught up with an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while, he suddenly changed the subject. “Could you fill me in on the first act?” he asked. “I confess I fell asleep.” In a nutshell, that’s the trouble with The Light in the Piazza. It’s a noble and intelligent effort, but it’s hard work to sit through. For some in the audience, that hard work will be rewarded with insight and inspiration. For others, though, it may produce fatigue and slumber.♦
Respond to this Article