The Light in the Piazza

Goodman Theatre

Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel The Light in the Piazza tells the story of a tug-of-war–between the past and the future, between the demands of love and of rationality, between hopes and fears. Unfortunately, this musical adaptation by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel is itself a tug-of-war–between the story of a disappointed middle-aged woman trying to recapture her youth and the story of her daughter’s first experience of love. By failing to choose between these two tales, Lucas and Guettel leave the audience wondering what the whole thing is about.

Their musical is also a meditation on the limitations of language. Clara Johnson, a young American on vacation with her mother in Florence, speaks no Italian, but she’s perfectly able to understand Fabrizio Naccarelli’s wooing of her. Meanwhile mother Margaret’s best efforts to communicate–with Fabrizio’s family, with her husband (who first courted her in Florence), with her childlike and dependent daughter–result in confusion and misunderstanding. Composer-lyricist Guettel expresses the view that love transcends language with lyrics that lapse into Italian, into vocalization, and into non sequitur. Book writer Lucas follows suit, leaving much of the Florentine family’s conversation in Italian and even inserting a long stretch of liturgical Latin. But again, instead of commenting on confusion, the authors succeed mostly in creating it.

But the real problem with this Light in the Piazza–directed by Bartlett Sher of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle–is one of tone. From the first notes of an overture full of minor keys, dread hovers over the stage. What agonizing secret is Margaret hiding? What nefarious plans do the Naccarellis have for these innocent Americans? When the story blossoms into a tale of love and redemption we feel cheated, as in a mystery where the ominous footsteps turn out to belong to the cat.

This flaw extends to the performances, which are better sung than they are acted, especially in the first half. Clara (Celia Keenan-Bolger) comes off as weird and affectless rather than charmingly guileless, while Fabrizio (Wayne Wilcox) seems not a boy falling hopelessly in love but a schemer–“accidentally” following Margaret and Clara to a museum, preparing English compliments in advance. Signor Naccarelli (Mark Harelik) has the louche charm of a guy who’d woo a woman on a cruise, then leave her in the lurch. But he turns out to be a strict paterfamilias who only wants the best for his son. And Margaret (the able Victoria Clark) wavers between selfless and monstrously selfish, between protective and controlling–not the way real people do but the way actors do when their characters are ill defined.

It’s Margaret who pays the highest price for the authors’ and Sher’s refusal to decide whether the piece is about her or her daughter. Margaret is by far the more interesting character, driven by mixed motives. She wants her daughter to love Florence the way she did as a bride, but not to find the sort of love Margaret has since lost. Because she has something to hide–there is a secret, but it’s minor–she presumes everyone does and is suspicious. She wants to protect Clara from situations that are too much for the girl–or maybe she just wants Clara never to grow up. (As the daughter says, “You love to say no.”)

The arc of the story could be that Margaret learns what she can control and what she can’t, that she learns to hope and perhaps even to love again. Then the function of Clara and her love affair would be subordinate–a prism through which Margaret could see the previously invisible colors of her life. This is a time-honored device in coming-of-middle-age stories, which often seem to be set in Italy: in Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” two matrons relive and resolve their youthful rivalry through their adolescent daughters. But the daughters there are offstage, seen mostly through their mothers’ eyes, and their love stories echo or amplify the older women’s experiences. Here, though, Clara has been in the spotlight–it’s her hat blowing in the breeze in the opening scene (and on the poster) and her love song with Fabrizio that closes the first act. It’s jarring to have Margaret come suddenly to the fore; she even sings the concluding solo. Whose play is this, anyway?

Composer Guettel’s Floyd Collins (which the Goodman produced in 1999) featured a score so extraordinary it was an argument for eugenics: Guettel is Richard Rodgers’s grandson. But his music for The Light in the Piazza is difficult without being interesting. Borrowing a lush neoromanticism from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, it requires operatic voices that sound overtrained in a musical comedy context. Except for Fabrizio, who keeps having to break into falsetto midsong, everyone in this cast is equal to the music’s demands; Kelli O’Hara as Franca, Fabrizio’s embittered sister-in-law, is particularly fine. But the score feels fragmented, its songs unrelated–a failing especially apparent when the second act includes the “reprise” of a number that hasn’t yet been sung.

The Light in the Piazza is a work in progress–the Goodman staging is only its second production, after a premiere at the coproducing Intiman. Perhaps a decision to focus on Margaret or on Clara is forthcoming; a program insert made it clear that the musical numbers are still being rearranged. But if its New York-based cast is to go home in triumph someday, a lot of work remains to be done.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.