Intersperse opera with musical theatre and add in melodrama together with the story of a developmentally impaired young woman and you have the makings of a most unusual Tony Award winner. The Light in the Piazza is based upon a 1959 novella by Mississippi writer Elizabeth Spencer, first published in The New Yorker magazine.
Set in Italy in the summer of 1953, Margaret Johnson (Chelsea Plumley), a wealthy Southern woman, and her daughter, Clara (Genevieve Kingsford), are holidaying in Italy sans Johnson’s businessman husband (Clara’s father). In Florence, when a gust of wind blows Clara’s hat into the hands of Fabrizio Naccarelli (Jonathan Hickey), a young Italian gentleman, he is immediately smitten. Neither age, nor language, nor familial disapproval can stop their whirlwind love affair. As The Light in the Piazza unfolds, a secret is revealed: in addition to the cultural differences between the young lovers, Clara is not quite all that she appears to be. Desperate to protect her daughter, Johnson is nevertheless forced to reconsider Clara’s future and reflect upon her own hopes.
Soaring melodies, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (the grandson of legendary musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers) and story by Craig Lucas, highlight the ever-present desire and emotion. The voices are sublime, all but overwhelming in their grandeur, even if I may call into question the Hollywood ending. Hickey, Kingsford and Plumley lead from the front. It is not just that trio, though, that makes its presence felt, with the young man’s father, Signor Naccarelli (Anton Berezin) making an immediate impact upon entering the fray. The 11-strong cast also features Josh Piterman as Fabrizio’s henpecked older brother, Giuseppe, and Jeremy Stanford as Margaret Johnson’s dogmatic husband, Roy.
With several of the characters fluent in only Italian or speaking just broken English, some of the dialogue and musical repertoire is solely in Italian, without surtitles. While there is the occasional translation of the spoken word, most is left to us – the audience – to interpret and that has its challenges.
The sets are relatively Spartan, save for the ever-present backdrop of grand paintings, of various shapes and sizes, in a variety of combinations – constant reminders of the rich cultural landscape against which this passion play unfolds. Theresa Borg directs, while musical direction is from Vanessa Scammell and choreography by Jo-Anne Robinson.
It is the first fully staged, professional production of the show to be seen in Australasia. The original Broadway production opened on April 18, 2005. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, claiming six, including Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.
I am not sure all will greet The Light in the Piazza with equal delight. While moving, at times comedic, its distinct hybrid model may not totally win over traditional musical theatre aficionados or dedicated opera lovers. It is on at the Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne until 6th November.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television