Composer and lyricist: Adam Guettel
Writer: Craig Lucas
Director Daniel Evans
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Once upon a time, wealthy Americans could stroll through Italian cities, unhampered by hordes of other tourists, and get swept off their feet by the pick of the lusty locals. The Light in the Piazza harks back to the 1950s, when air travel was established and few could afford it, but the surprise is that this musical version made its debut on Broadway as recently as 2005, winning the Tony Award for Best Score in that year. The only previous production in the United Kingdom was at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in 2009.
The 1962 Hollywood adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel is the sort of film that can crop up on television on a Sunday afternoon and require the use of a small pack of tissues. The plot is filled out with romantic slush, the levels of which might have caused embarrassment to Barbara Cartland, and Adam Guettel’s lush score for this musical rises to the call for unbridled romanticism.
The rich Americans are Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming) and her daughter, Clara, played by former Disney Channel star Dove Cameron, dressed appropriately to resemble a fairy tale princess. Margaret explains that Clara is “younger than her age”, having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child, while Clara stares dreamily at Florence’s statues of naked men and at the handsome young signori on their motor scooters, perhaps connecting the two.
The first to dismount his Lambretta and pursue Clara is Fabrizio, played by Rob Houchen as a novice Romeo, to great comic effect. While Fabrizio is stealing Clara’s heart, Houchen is stealing large chunks of the show. Alex Jennings is gifted the sort of light comedy role in which he always excels, cast as Fabrizio’s father, who, naturally, has an eye for Margaret.
Daniel Evans directs the first half with the lightest of touches, but his production gets slightly bogged down in the second half, when it feels as if everyone is taking it all too seriously. This is certainly more than a concert performance, but the presence of the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, on stage and visible throughout, suggests that the correct description is “semi-staged”. Robert Jones’ set design has the right Florentine feel, but there are no changes to reflect the numerous locations where the action is raking place.
With this orchestra performing in a grand concert hall and a company led by one of the world’s greatest operatic sopranos (Fleming), the clues were there that this was always going to be a show to hear more than one to see. Guettel’s compositions are a strange hybrid of Broadway and 19th/20th Century Italian opera, but this production tilts the balance towards the latter. When Houchen, resembling a slimmed-down Pavarotti, sings Passeggiata fully in Italian, the links to Puccini become clear. Two duets – Say it Somehow (Cameron and Houchen) and Let’s Walk (Fleming and Jennings) – stand out, but the indisputably lovely score does not have enough of the variety that fans of Broadway musicals tend to expect.
It is often the case with semi-staged shows that the expansion of the music to an epic scale can diminish the impact of other elements. Here, Guettel’s lyrics and Craig Lucas’s book feel no more than adequate to hold the show together and advance the wafer-thin story, while secondary characters, played skilfully by Marie McLaughlin, Celinde Shoemaker, Malcolm Sinclair, Liam Tamne and others, struggle to break through.
Needless to say, Clara and Fabrizio live happily ever after, or at least until after the final bows. No evening spent listening to beautiful music, played impeccably, and hearing the likes of the magnificent Fleming hitting the high notes can be one wasted. This one, packed with nostalgic charm, certainly isn’t, but the experience feels incomplete and so not of today.
Runs until 5 July 2019 | Image: Dewynters London