The Light in the Piazza is a musical about human beings. It has some considerable shortcomings, which I’ll deal with below, but its main distinction is that its humanity separates it from the bulk of current musical theater. It’s not a self-reflexive spoof of anything, not a carpentered-up trip through anyone’s catalog of songs, not a technological barrage of noise and effects, and not a politically corrected kiddie book. It’s just a story about human beings told through music—a phenomenon so rare nowadays that it deserves praise just for existing.
Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella (better known from its 1962 film version with Olivia de Havilland), The Light in the Piazza deals with a well-off American woman, Margaret Johnson (Victoria Clark), and her daughter Clara (Kelli O’Hara), traveling in Italy. In Florence, Clara falls in love with Fabrizio Naccarelli (Matthew Morrison), a young Italian, whose family keeps an (apparently exclusive) haberdashery. This would be an entirely conventional vacation romance except for two things: Clara and Fabrizio’s love is deeply in earnest from the start; and Clara is “special,” which is Margaret’s polite way of saying that she’s not all there mentally. Having been kicked in the head by a pony at the age of 10, Clara has never developed to full mental maturity.
As the romance burgeons, with Clara being welcomed by the Naccarellis and wedding plans getting firmed up, Margaret struggles increasingly over how much to tell Fabrizio and his parents, how to explain matters to her concerned but emotionally distant husband back home, most of all over whether she should let the proposed marriage take place. Hanging over her is another concern, never fully expressed: that Clara’s “backwardness” may not be physiological, that it may be the result of her having been overly sheltered by Margaret ever since the accident, rather than of the accident itself. The scenes we see of Clara lapsing into helpless confusion or uncontrolled tantrum have been chosen for their ambiguity: They might be signs of mental disturbance, but they could just as easily come from finding oneself in an unfamiliar culture, or the natural glandular upsurges of young love. Craig Lucas’s script cannily keeps us guessing.
What neither Lucas’s script nor Adam Guettel’s score does, unhappily, is tell us enough about the people to keep the guesswork interesting. What makes Fabrizio so instantly and permanently passionate about a girl with whom he can barely communicate? Why is his family so receptive to his marrying a total stranger from a foreign country and another religion? What, for that matter, makes Fabrizio so special to Clara, whose beauty could conceivably attract flocks of young men, Italy being Italy? A few brief exchanges about money between Margaret and Fabrizio’s father suggest a hidden agenda, especially since the story has some resemblance to Arthur Laurents’s play The Time of the Cuckoo, not long ago revived by Lincoln Center Theater, in which a mature American woman engages in a troubled Italian romance—and which was musicalized in 1965 by Guettel’s grandfather.
But the acrimonious money squabbles built into Laurents’s plot never materialize here. What we get instead is a nebulous flow of romance, romance, romance, interrupted by Margaret’s recurring frets and tiny flare-ups of stress among the Naccarellis. Guettel’s music is always lovely to listen to, but its lush flow tends not to take on any strongly dramatic shape; his lyrics, prosy and considerably inferior to his music, don’t give the surging harmonies any strong emotional focus. The evening begins with a wordless vocalise, a technique into which the characters lapse repeatedly, as if the whole experience were too intense to be defined in words. But as the music doesn’t define either events or characters strongly, the overall effect is more nebulous than gripping.
Fortunately, Bartlett Sher’s handsome production provides a lot of anchors to keep the musical prettiness from drifting away. Michael Yeargan’s spacious, elegant sets, swept with waves of lemony Italian light by Christopher Akerlind, give the romance a majestic reality. Catherine Zuber’s rich-colored, sagely unfussy costumes do the same for the characters. And casting director Janet Foster deserves credit along with Sher for assembling a company in which every role seems fitted with exactly the right person: Mark Harelik and Patti Cohenour as Fabrizio’s parents, Michael Berresse and Sarah Uriarte Berry as his brother and sister-in-law, Beau Gravitte as Clara’s father, all handle their comparatively small tasks to perfection. Morrison’s face may still say “Midwestern college campus,” but his speech and body language seem thoroughly Florentine. O’Hara, in every gradation of Clara’s feelings from panic to ecstasy, is consistently graceful and touching. As for Clark, whose role obliges her to play nursemaid, flirt, disciplinarian, diplomat, duenna, moonstruck tourist, and panicked parent all in one, the best compliment I can give her is that she makes Margaret Johnson seem like a moving and understandable person whom one might actually meet in Wichita or Louisville, and at the same time like someone perfectly entitled to be the heroine of an opera. The reasonable complaint, under the circumstances, is that the authors have not provided very much of an opera for her to be the heroine of. But they’ve done their work with skill and beauty, to which their interpreters have added as much reality as could be poured into Spencer’s hazy story. And it is a great relief to see a musical about human beings again.