'The Light in the Piazza': Theater Review

Courtesy of Craig T. Matthew/ DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILLION
Renée Fleming (left) and Dove Cameron in 'The Light in the Piazza'
Roll your eyes if you like, but just listen to the music.
10/20/2019

Renowned soprano Renée Fleming stars alongside Dove Cameron and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the L.A. Opera revival of Adam Guettel's multi-award-winning 2005 musical.

When The Light in the Piazza premiered at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2005, it walked off with six Tony Awards at the end of the season, including one for Adam Guettel's opulent romantic score. It's a tough act to follow, but the new revival, headlined by opera star Renée Fleming and first seen in London for a few weeks last summer, just touched down in Los Angeles on its way to Chicago then Sydney, stirring the hearts of tourists in two hemispheres with the story of Margaret and Clara Johnson, the mother and daughter on whom this unapologetically sentimental but often irresistible musical is centered.

Sexy, stylish, modern yet steeped in Old World charm, Italy plays its postcard self as an idyllic Roman and Florentine backdrop reminiscent of the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck 1953 classic Roman Holiday, or Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960). Of course, only a tourist could see it that way, and that’s exactly what Margaret (Fleming) and Clara (Dove Cameron) are.

"Statues and Stories" is a utile curtain-raiser, introducing exotic Florence through the eyes of the two women, conjuring courtships past and future. The prominent swelling strings characterize movie music of the period, but Guettel ballasts his composition with dissonant, modernist undercurrents in a way that elevates the form. 

The wind lifts Clara's hat and lands it in the hands of handsome Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen). At first sight, it's at least deep infatuation, which in stories such as these, might as well be love, because within a few scenes and no more than two dozen broken-English sentences between them, Clara and Fabrizio are talking marriage. 

Yawning language gaps are bridged in the usual musical-theater way, with a pair of charming duets, "Passeggiata," a playful walk through town together, and one of Guettel's most urgently passionate songs, "Say It Somehow," to close the first act. 

Complications ensue in the second act as we learn the tragic basis of Margaret's misgivings about her daughter's impending nuptials — a run in with a Shetland pony (I kid you not), that has permanently impacted the girl's mental capacities. It’s a ridiculous plot point delivered point blank to the audience by Fleming, one of several clumsy expository passages that mark the show's weakest element, Craig Lucas' book based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer, and subsequent Olivia de Havilland movie of 1962. 

Fleming earned a Tony nomination for playing Nettie Fowler in Carousel in 2018, the first appearance in her back-to-back musical-theater hiatus from the opera stage. Like that role, Margaret was conceived with a classically trained singer in mind, helping ease the 60-year-old soprano's transition to a different stage.

It's jarring at first to watch her not sing, for once, but deliver lines with naturalistic undertones, but Fleming has spent a career delivering emotionally charged performances, appropriately tempered here from operatic to dramatic. 

In a role for which veteran Victoria Clark won a Tony, Fleming occasionally finds her low range challenged, and yet the soprano soars, standing out in a cast of excellent singers. Her showstopper, "Dividing Day," follows a long-distance phone call home to husband Roy, a sufficiently surly Malcom Sinclair. Its mounting cadence and Fleming's precise phrasing and stirring delivery alone are almost worth the price of admission.

Best known for her work on the Disney Channel, Cameron (who made her New York stage debut last year in Clueless: The Musical) shines as the fragile Clara, a role played previously by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Kelli O'Hara. Cameron warmly embodies the prospect of new love in the show's title song. Throughout, she walks the line between unsure and determined, tipping from the high of her scenes with Fabrizio into anguished unraveling in "Clara's Tirade."

Her sonorous soprano is simpatico with Houchen's vibrant tenor in their duets, while he's effortlessly winning as the romantic lead, then blends naturally with his family in the ensemble, including father Signor Naccarelli, played by Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Kiss Me, Kate). New to the cast, Mitchell is fluently seductive in his duet with Fleming, "Let's Walk," and hilariously adamant when he rules out marriage between Clara and Fabrizio. 

Fleming is joined in the cast by another opera soprano, Marie McLaughlin as Signora Naccarelli, who steps into Guettel's delirious four-part vocal arrangement, "Aiutame" with a stunning aria of her own. As the disgruntled but slinky sister-in-law to be, Celinda Schoenmaker offers sage and cynical advice in "The Joy You Feel." And Liam Tamne, as her philandering husband Giuseppe, dances like Fred Astaire. 

Actor-turned-director Daniel Evans is an Olivier Award nominee for his 2017 West End revival of Show Boat, and artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre. Emotion is occasionally overwrought here, if such a thing is possible in a melodrama as ripe as this, though Evans achieves the right tone with his cast. The performers are sometimes subject to static, stand-and-sing staging in scenic designer Robert Jones' modernist, albeit traditional, Italian piazza capped by a dome mural depiction of Renaissance heavens. Completing the picture are Brigitte Reiffenstuel's fetching, era-defining Dior-style outfits.

Guettel is the grandson of Richard Rodgers, whose piano he inherited, the same instrument that produced songs like "Isn't It Romantic" and "Hello, Young Lovers." With Kimberly Grigsby's astute conducting, The Light in the Piazza taps into the lush, string-heavy strains of Rodgers' era while fusing rich, modern arrangements that make a powerful case for score being the defining element in musical theater. (Stepping outside the genre, Guettel's underscoring for the current Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird earned him his second Tony nomination.)

It's easy to see why The Light in the Piazza might be greeted with eyerolls by those who emphasize story over song. Those who don't, just listen and enjoy. 

Venue: L.A. Opera, Los Angeles
Cast: Renée Fleming, Dove Cameron, Rob Houchen, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marie McLaughlin, Celinde Schoenmaker, Malcolm Sinclair, Liam Tamne, Matthew Woodyatt, Rhona McGregor, Simbi Akande, Danny Becker, Jordan Castle, Nicholas Duncan, Chlöe Hart, Molly Lynch, Tom Partridge, Monica Swayne
Director: Daniel Evans
Music and lyrics: Adam Guettel
Book: Craig Lucas, based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer
Conductor: Kimberly Grigsby
Set designer: Robert Jones
Costume designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designers: Kai Harada, Patrick Pummill
Presented by L.A. Opera, Alfred and Claude Mann Fund, R&H Theatricals Europe with Turner Entertainment Co.