Beauty of 'Piazza' Transcends Words

By: Dec. 22, 2006
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In descriptions of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' musical The Light in the Piazza, certain adjectives – "ravishing," "radiant," "lush," "beguiling," etc. - often appear. Certainly, the show is all of these things, but perhaps the most applicable word of all is "cathartic." The Light in the Piazza, is quite simply, the most emotionally powerful musical of the last 10 years.

Piazza's ability to both dazzle and devastate is amply showcased in its touring production, which has settled at the Kennedy Center for a run through January 7th. It helps that the show already has a very solid foundation – a funny and poignant book by Lucas, eloquent, if occasionally self-conscious, lyrics by Guettel and rhapsodically beautiful melodies by the same (accented by Guettel and Ted Sperling's gorgeous orchestrations). Yet its touring cast – led by Christine Andreas, Elena Shaddow and David Burnham – turns Piazza into an even more impressive palazzo, built upon the humanist musical theatre principles of Guettel's grandfather, Richard Rodgers. If there are lapses in pacing here and there, and a staging/design scheme that is somewhat less effective than it was when the show premiered at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, The Light in the Piazza's touring production – as helmed by its Broadway director Bartlett Sher - is a mostly blissful experience.

The Light in the Piazza, based upon the novella by Elizabeth Spencer, is set in Florence, a city rich with both history and fable.  Margaret Johnson (Andreas), a Southern American tourist, is vacationing with her daughter Clara (Shaddow), whose mental immaturity is due to an accident she suffered as a child. Fiercely protective of her daughter – and emotionally bruised by a rocky marriage – Margaret is less than thrilled when Clara and a handsome young Florentine named Fabrizio (Burnham) fall in love, at literally, the drop of hat (hers has blown off and he catches it, to be specific). Margaret's arc – from a defense against to an embrace of love's pain and possibility – is Piazza's emotional core. Similarly, Clara blossoms into a woman capable of meeting some adult challenges and responsibilities.

Shaddow gives a superb performance as the delicate Clara; her work is convincingly spontaneous, as well as richly detailed and controlled. The character's childish impulsiveness feels almost entirely unaffected, and the actress (who has a lovely, silvery voice) also layers her performance with aching depth and passion.  Her performance of the title song, in which Clara explains the all-encompassing warmth of her love for Fabrizio, brings chills.

Andreas gets off to a tentative start (you're in Florence; be a little more excited about it!), but grows beautifully into the role of Margaret throughout the course of the performance. Although she misses some of the character's wry humor, she offers a deeply-felt, richly-crafted portrait of a woman who is devoted to her daughter's happiness and well-being. Andreas, who has a great onstage rapport with Shaddow, performs the show's 11 o'clock number "Fable" with fiery pathos, but is even more heartbreaking with her subtle reprise of "The Beauty Is."

The vocally-blessed Burnham is a fine Fabrizio; he plays the character with an inquisitiveness and spark that matches that of Clara. He displays an almost palpable chemistry with Shaddow. Their courtship is not only romantic, but tense, unpredictable, playful and charged with a language-defying sexual energy. These are two young people who genuinely like one another, as well as lust after each other (Shaddow plays Clara with a pleasantly surprising randiness, here and there).

The rest of the cast – including Jonathan Hammond (as Giuseppe Nacarelli), David Ledingham (as Signor Naccarelli) and Diane Sutherland (as Signora Naccarelli)- also turns in generally fine work, individually and as an ensemble. Laura Griffith is a standout as the beautiful and embittered Franca Nacarelli, Fabrizio's sister-in-law whose troubled marriage to Giuseppe poses a stark counterpoint to the romance of Clara and Fabrizio. Griffith finds the humor, as well as the poignancy, of her tempestuously Italian character.

While newcomers to Piazza won't miss anything by seeing the show performed upon a proscenium stage, the touring production somewhat lacks the exquisite ambiance and mood created by its design team at the Beaumont. Catherine Zuber's eye-popping costumes are still there, as are Michael Yeargan's sets of shifting pillars and facades, and Christopher Akerlind's dappled lighting effects – yet the Florentine alchemy is somehow diminished, and the staging, at times, seems a little cramped when moved from out of an expansive thrust space. However, this is advantageous for some of the musical numbers; "La Passegiata," here, with its detailed staging, has a sense of focus that might be an improvement upon the Broadway one. The same goes for "Let's Walk," the other ambulatory song. There are times in the first act, however, when the show's pacing grows slack.

Yet with a sterling cast gilding such fine material, the touring production of The Light in the Piazza calls up any number of gushing adjectives. Clara and Fabrizio, however, in the duet "Say It Somehow," describe how real feeling is beyond language. To see The Light in the Piazza is to be transported by music to a place of pure, purifying emotion.

Photos by Joan Marcus
1) Christine Andreas and Elena Shaddow
2) David Burnham and Elena Shaddow
3) Jonathan Hammond, Laura Griffith, David Burnham, David Ledingham, Elena Shaddow, Diane Sutherland and Christine Andreas


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