Renée Fleming Headlines The Light in the Piazza Which Proves To Be a Flawed Italian Travelogue

20/06/2019

The Light in the Piazza (book by Craig Lucas, lyrics and music by Adam Guettel): Company of The Light in the Piazza, Orchestra of Opera North / Kimberley Grigsby (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.6.2019. (JPr)

The Light in the Piazza (c) Dewynters London

Production:

Director – Daniel Evans
Scenic designer – Robert Jones
Costume designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting designer – Mark Henderson
Movement director – Lucy Hind

Cast included:

Margaret Johnson – Renée Fleming
Clara Johnson – Dove Cameron
Roy Johnson – Malcolm Sinclair
Signor Naccarelli – Alex Jennings
Signora Naccarelli – Marie McLaughlin
Fabrizio Naccarelli – Rob Houchen
Giuseppe Naccarelli – Liam Tamine
Franca Naccarelli – Celinde Schoenmaker

The Light in the Piazza premiered at Lincoln Center in 2005 and that year was nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won six, including Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations. Based upon Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella and a subsequent 1962 film adaptation of the same name, Craig Lucas wrote the book for the musical and Adam Guettel – the grandson of Richard Rodgers – took on the task to provide lyrics (some in broken English or Italian) and music. The musical garnered much praise with The Chicago Tribune describing it as having ‘…the most beautiful score written for the American theatre in at least 20 years [with] uncommonly wise and emotional lyrics.’

Italy – at the time the story takes place in the early 1950s – was recovering from its involvement in the Second World War and reclaiming a role for itself in world affairs. So, when Margaret Johnson brings her young daughter, Clara, for a sentimental journey to Italy where she and her husband (Michael Sinclair seen at the end of telephone conversations) is hoping to recapture the memories of happier times past but also something of the world before it was plunged into that cataclysmic war. It is against this backdrop of a changing world that we follow the burgeoning romance of Clara and Fabrizio Naccarelli which highlights the different cultural traditions and constraints of the U.S. and Italy. We are in the territory of every Hallmark Channel TV romance and, of course, the course of true love cannot run smooth as hidden secrets as revealed. Margaret is fiercely protective of her daughter and is determined to shield her from experiencing any emotional turmoil because (spoiler alert) in her teens Clara was kicked the head by a pony and this has left her challenged developmentally and she is called ‘handicapped’ by her father. A childlike Clara is supposedly deemed to be trapped inside a 26-year-old’s body. Clara is longing for fulfilment and someone to truly love her, but Margaret is suffocating her even if she has the best intentions.

Fabrizio and his family – a familiarly loud, gesticulating and volcanically passionate, Italian family – are unaware of Clara’s condition and welcome her and Fabrizio’s wish to marry. However, first religion rears its ugly head and Clara must convert to Catholicism, yet that seems to be no big problem, though what creates a crisis is that Fabrizio’s father discovers Clara is six years older than his son. Margaret meanwhile has undergone an epiphany mainly as a result of coming to terms with her own loveless marriage and engineers the expected happy ending for all romcoms like this.

It is very thin fare to base a two-hour musical on and after an overlong first act everything rushes headlong to the wedding at the end of Act II. It concludes with Margaret’s anthemic ‘Fable’ which is there for no real reason but to bring down the curtain (not that there was one in the Royal Festival Hall.) I don’t know the source material but get the feeling the musical does not do justice to Clara and her condition. As here she is a bit of a spoiled brat who just has a tantrum if she is not getting what she wants. It is never made clear if the Naccarellis are really aware of what is wrong with Clara despite her Act II ‘Tirade’ when she believes Franca (Celinde Schoenmaker) – who has married into the Naccarelli family – has set her sights on Fabrizio. More of a concern apparently is that unacceptable age gap between the lovers. Act I ends with Margaret catching Clara and Fabrizio kissing in their hotel room. A helicopter parent like this would do more than run off with her to Rome for further sightseeing and reminisces, as they would have been on the first plane home and the musical would have ended there. Margaret’s volte-face is not believable.

Guettel’s score is a hotchpotch of film soundtrack, pop, musical, and quasi-operatic melodies and its sheer eclecticism made me wish at times – heresy I know – I could have seen the story just as a straight play. Due to the restrictions of the facilities at the Royal Festival Hall – where the orchestra needs to be behind the set – Light in the Piazza gets only an elaborate semi-staging. Admittedly Robert Jones does provide a curved evocation of a Florentine piazza with a staircase behind which works well in the open scene. However, it then has to unrealistically stand-in – with a few additional props here and there – for all the other locations of the plot; a hotel room, the Naccarellis’ shop, various streets and squares, as well as, a church. There is a tall bare-buttocked classical statue stage right which turns around to become the only difference between Florence and Rome, apart from some priests and nuns. Also, a rather modern looking Vespa scoots across the stage from time to time (as you might expect) as a further reminder of where we are supposed to be. There is sun-drenched lighting from Mark Henderson and gorgeous frocks and other ‘50s costumes from Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Daniel Evans’s direction does little more than get the characters to move around this limited space effectively.

The 40-strong Orchestra of Opera North, under the baton of Kimberley Grigsby, cannot be faulted for their rendition of the Guettel’s heterogeneous score. Renée Fleming acts well as the (overly?) concerned parent. She seems to be forever rushing off stage for yet another costume change. In a run of performances such as these – with no opportunity to rest as in opera – it is likely to take its toll on any voice and perhaps Fleming will have better nights than this in the future. It was only in that climactic ‘Fable’ that she sounded at her full-throated ease. Much is made in the programme of Dove Cameron’s Disney and Instagram popularity and again she acted better than she sang as Clara on this occasion.

It is one of this musical’s oddities that the well-cast Naccarellis talk amongst themselves in Italian and for some reason there are no surtitles. The Italians – and any others fluent in the language – in the audience were clearly thrilled but it will have lost most of the otherwise cosmopolitan audience in a less-than-full Royal Festival Hall. Strangely that is addressed in Act II when Signora Naccarelli (Marie McLaughlin) steps out of character and explains what is going on. I am at a loss as to why this did not happen earlier. (I must admit that some of the cod-Italian accents reminded me strongly of Captain Alberto Bertorelli from TV’s legendary ‘Allo ‘Allo! comedy.) Alex Jennings is suave and persuasive as Signor Naccarelli and gets an eloquent duet, “Let’s Walk” (in English), with Margaret when he too seems to change his mind all too quickly and give his blessing to Clara and Fabrizio’s wedding.

The undoubted star in every way of this London premiere of Light in the Piazza is Rob Houchen’s Fabrizio. On this evidence he has a very promising future in music theatre and is a name to follow. He gets everything right and is so good to suggest that the material he is working with is better than it is. He has an engaging energetic personality and his tenor voice ripped through a heartfelt opening solo ‘Il Mondo Era Vuoto’ as if he was a young Andrea Bocelli.

Once again despite the obvious affection Light in the Piazza engenders probably amongst Italian Americans in the U.S. and the cult status it has accrued elsewhere there is a reason why some musicals like this are put on only rarely and that is because they are recognised, by many others, as not being all that great. For completists and fans of Renée Fleming or Dove Cameron, of course, I urge you to go and make up your own mind.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Light in the Piazza at the Royal Festival Hall click here.

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