Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
As the son of Mary Rodgers Guettel (Once Upon a Mattress) and the grandson of Richard Rodger, famous for his solo creations as well as his musical theatre collaborations with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, it would have been extraordinary if Adam Guettel did NOT create an award winning musical. It took him a while, he was 40 by the time The Light in the Piazza took home the Tony for Best Original Score, but he did it nonetheless.
In a 2006 New York Times article Guettel is quoted as saying: “I wish I could just have fun and relax and not have the responsibility of that potential to be some kind of great man! In my family, to be good is to fail. To be very good is to fail. To only do three really good things is to fail. The only thing not a failure is to be great. And that....is tiring.”
I can relate to Guettel because I went to the same school his mother did, and that was exactly the philosophy we were all raised with, whether we were Richard Rodgers’ progeny or not. It is very tiring and very depressing to live in a world where your only options are international success or failure, where there is no middle ground and no small amount of personal joy is acceptable.
By contrast, Guettel’s association with the Weston Playhouse seems to have been a fairly happy one. Life is pretty low-key in the mountains of south-central Vermont. While there is a high standard of performance at Weston, it is also a place to experiment and explore creatively in relative isolation from the high-pressure worlds of New York or Hollywood.
Weston presented Guettel’s Floyd Collins in 2001, the same summer he and librettist Craig Lucas were at work on The Light in the Piazza and he gave a concert of the score at the Playhouse that year. In 2005, the year the show won its Tony Awards, Guettel brought members of the Broadway cast, including long-time Weston regular David Bonnano, to present a concert of selections from the show at Weston where it sold out. Consequently, Weston expressed interest in staging a “chamber” or “concert” version of the show, and Guettel responded by cutting the 18 performers and 15 musicians used on Broadway down to just eight performers and five musicians for a version that would be more easily produced by smaller regional theatres. This is the version being premiered at Weston this summer.
I do not review at Weston, but since they routinely present regional premieres or shows that other theatres never tackle, I usually find myself headed that direction at least once a summer. To keep within my modest theatre budget, I buy second row center seats, since they are usually nearly $10 cheaper than those in the third row center. What I was not prepared for was that the first row of seats was removed to accommodate an extended stage for this production, and I found myself sitting literally right beside musical director, conductor, and pianist Andy Einhorn. I have to say he greeted me very warmly.
I very much enjoyed by close view of Einhorn and his ensemble at work, and clearly seeing the faces of the performers. What was more difficult at such close quarters was the sound mix. I think the instruments and miked singers blended about three rows behind me, and I was left to make sense of a random assortment of sounds.
I was also totally unprepared for the operatic singing style required for this show. The style of singing predominate in American Musical Theatre is much more focused on communicating the lyrics than on making beautiful sounds. In opera story (often ridiculous) is subordinate to music and it is assumed that the audience is already familiar with the work, has librettos in hand, or has visual access to sub- or supertitles, none of which is the case here.
Combine the high singing style with the fact that many numbers in the show are sung in Italian, and I was left studying the faces of the singers knowing that they were trying to tell me something. And I DID know the plot ahead of time.
In 1960 Mississippi author Elizabeth Spencer published The Light in the Piazza as a short story. Hollywood snapped it up and the film, starring Olivia deHaviland and Yvette Mimeux, was released in 1962.
Margaret Johnson (Theresa McCarthy) and her daughter Clara (Lauren Worsham) are on holiday in Florence, Italy in 1953 when Clara and a young Italian man Fabrizzio Naccarelli (Kevin Worley) fall in love. Despite the cultural differences and the initial fears of both families that their children are being preyed on by foreigners, it becomes apparent that what Clara and Fabrizzio have is precious and real. They want to marry, but there’s a problem. Clara is not what she seems.
That is the entire plot – minus its deep secret which I will not divulge here. The story is sweet and simple and very, very romantic. Its central characters are a middle-aged married woman (her husband, Roy, Clara’s father, a tobacco executive, has remained at home on business) and her daughter. Fabrizzio, his brother Guiseppe (Jonathan Raviv), and their father (David Bonanno) are important but more peripheral characters. Franca (Sarah Uriarte Berry), Guiseppe’s wife, and Signora Naccarelli (Michelle Rios) are more important. Roy Johnson (Michael Berry), appears only twice as Margaret places trans-Atlantic calls to him – still a tricky business in 1953.
This is a woman’s show and women find it far more enthralling than men, although at least two-thirds of the matinee audience with whom I attended was male. While Clara’s condition has affected both Margaret and Roy, he has been able to escape into his work world, while she, in true 1950’s fashion, has stayed at home and made Clara’s life her priority (the couple have no other children). Ultimately, Margaret chooses to eliminate Roy from her decision about Clara’s future, and possibly hers as well.
McCarthy plays Margaret as the ultimate in-control Southern executive’s wife. The best example of the mid-20th century Executive Wife most modern Americans can recall is Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha Stephens on Bewitched – and she was no Southerner. Even when faced with truly alarming circumstances in a foreign country where she does not speak the language, McCarthy’s Margaret keeps her cool. Every hair is in place, beneath the stylish and requiste hats, and her white gloved hands barely tremble.
Worsham’s Clara, by contrast, is more the modern mid-century woman, in spite of her condition. She is the precursor of the determined Gidgets and Mary Richardses who forged independent lives for American women.
While Worsham sings very, very beautifully, the real vocal stand out here is Worley. His every number is memorable. Unfortunately, he looks the same age as Worsham, or even older, which is a problem here. But maybe from further back in the house he looked much younger, who knows?
Raviv and Berry play the decidedly unsympathetic characters here – both womanizers who treat the good women in their lives with disdain. Uriarte Berry, who originated the role of Franca on Broadway, is almost too strong and too big for the intimate confines at Weston – and Weston, for a rural theatre, is quite large. Uriarte Berry’s make-up and wig and conical 1950’s brassiere, along with her powerful voice and stage presence, were almost overpowering.
Bonanno states openly in his program bio that this his 20th season at Weston and that he “still looks good,” which is the truth. After seeing him in roles like the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance and Jerry Lukowski in The Full Monty, I was rather startled to see him looking so distinguished and playing the Pater Familias, although I see that on Broadway he understudied Guiseppe. He and McCarthy made a handsome couple, although I worried a lot about what their kiss might mean for Signora Naccarelli, played with Old World charm by Rios, who I know is far too young to be the motherly type.
Stettler's direction, Russell Metheny's scenic design, and Kendall Smith's evocative lighting design is simple and subtle. My eye was captivated by the endless parade of really spiffy ladies fashions, circa 1953, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld has produced for McCarthy, Worsham, and Uriarte Berry.
The Light in the Piazza in all of its incarnations, is a unique and charming story – one that raises many more questions than it answers. If you have ever been a parent or ever been in love – and love is the precursor of most human reproduction – you will enjoy this show and this enchanting bijou production at Weston. Come prepared to shed a tear or two at the final curtain.
The Light in the Piazza runs through July 26 at the Weston Playhouse (802-824-5288), on Rt. 100 in Weston, VT. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up. Call the box office at 802-824-5288 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008