. . . if there’s nothing heart-wrenching about The Light in the Piazza, is that such a terrible thing? What’s wrong with light and breezy love?
Art captures beauty—the beauty of life—and life becomes art. It’s a roundabout passage, perfect for the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s semi-circular stage, and one that’s quite apt for the natural (by which I mean architectural) devices of Florence, c. 1953. Fitting for light and breezy love too, that free-form whirligig of passion that gives a rosy tinge to all the music in The Light in the Piazza. At a time when Broadway is flush with musical spectacles and little substance, it’s nice to finally be romanced like that again, charmed and subtly worked upon by the movements of the heart (and yes, the vocal cords too).
It works, like most of the classic romances (Brigadoon comes to mind), because it takes place in a world that’s half-fantasy and half-real; in this case, Italy, with all the connotations (and a few of the stereotypes, but in good fun). But whereas other romances have cliffhangers between acts and hit the highs and lows of love, The Light in the Piazza features an attack of the warm and fuzzy. There’s a limit to how far one can suspend belief; there’s a point at which The Light is looking dramatically dim.
If you don’t want to tell a depressing story, don’t make one of the romantic leads mildly retarded. (And don’t keep that gun from going off: Chekhov is rolling in his grave.) And while the compression keeps up a lively pace, tension should last longer than a song. As for obstacles: they aren’t absent, they’re just not getting in the way. Quite the opposite! And yet, if there’s nothing heart-wrenching about The Light in the Piazza, is that such a terrible thing? There are plenty of comic elements: misunderstandings, reversals, even a little soft-shoe. What’s wrong with light and breezy love?
While so caught up in its own glow that at times it approaches cloying, Victoria Clark (as Margaret, far better in the second act than the first) and Kelli O’Hara (as Clara, just fantastic throughout, period) keep us grounded, even if that ground is a trampoline, determined to keep us in the clouds. (And it is a lovely view.) However, they’re so damn likable that at times they lose a little humanity: it’s not until they start cracking (Clara’s “Tirade” or Margaret’s “The Beauty Is [Reprise]”) that they fully appreciate. Aaron Lazar (the Italian love interest, Fabrizio) is so cursed: so much the sum of his parts (can’t-a speak-a English so good-a, hopeless romantic, &c.), he can only operate on one of two levels: the shy lover or the suicidal (and knee-slapping) rejected. Chris Sarandon, who plays his father, Signor Naccarelli, gives a far more nuanced performance, though it’s clear his “son” got all the musical talent (not to mention opportunity—almost every song is Clara, Margaret, or Fabrizio, solo or in tandem).
There’s not really a chorus (although there is a pervasive presence of extras on stage to create the illusion of a robust city), nor are there any dance numbers, so the entire show rests on the three main characters. (It doesn’t have to; the whole cast can actually act.) Everyone else is in the periphery: at times, even the magnificent scenery (large Roman columns and Italian architecture) shadows the company. Adam Guettel, who wrote the music and lyrics, isn’t incapable—his group numbers are marvelous, just few and far between. And you’ve got to admire that two of the songs are done (like much of the Naccarelli family dialogue) entirely in Italian, without subtitles. (The choice to have the signora break character to translate seems like a cop out, and reeks of “meta.”)
The lack of dance is replaced with precise choreography (sometimes enacted by the set). The lack of big musical numbers is replaced by the intimacy, fantastic vocals and presence of the three leads (more impressive given the size of the stage). And the lack of painful drama is replaced by a most buoyant romance (with just enough pinpricks of suffering to remind us that we’re still there). It might have been interesting to see Clara’s mental illness take more precedence, but that’s not the story being told. With The Light in the Piazza, love really does conquer all. And it’s a pleasant change.
Vivian Beaumont Theater: 150 West 65th Street
Tickets: $65-95 (212-239-6200)
Performances: Tuesday-Saturday @ 8:00; Wednesday & Saturday @ 2:00; Sunday @ 3:00