BWW Review: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, Royal Festival Hall
We're in Florence (if only...) with Margaret Johnson, wealthy and American, and her daughter, Clara, a teen (well, she looks and behaves like a teen...) who is beginning to forge her own way in the world. Clara catches the eye of Fabrizio and a holiday romance ensues, but is it more than that? Soon Fabrizio's father and family are involved and the lovers find unexpected obstacles to overcome.If you're thinking that Craig Lucas's book sounds like the plot of a TV movie you find on the Hallmark Channel at 2pm on a rainy Thursday, you're not far wrong. And we get plenty else one might find there too - beautiful 1950s Dior-ish frocks and accessories (super work from Brigitte Reiffenstuel), a Vespa for added Italianness, stereotypes so broad they might have given the director of the Cornetto ads pause...
Maybe all that stuff is laid on thick because the venue is so unsympathetic to the storytelling, the vast Royal Festival Hall stretching back as far as the Tuscan hills as seen from the Duomo. The curious decision to use just one set - Robert Jones's excellent evocation of the crumbling Florentine walls - doesn't help either, the claustrophobic chaos of an Italian family argument at home dissipating as (visually) we're still in the Square.
The show is rescued by the music, Adam Guettel's ethereal melodies floating, soaring and sweeping through the space, continually knocking us off-balance, sometimes settling into a familiar genre (opera, musical, pop) but then, up and away again. Like his magisterial Floyd Collins, you could watch the show blindfolded with every singer absent, and know exactly what was going on. In a show not short of stars, the Orchestra of Opera North, under the baton of Kimberley Grigsby, emerges as the brightest of them all.
Speaking of stars, Renée Fleming (after a first half in which she was not alone in being less than crystal clear through the microphones, issues seemingly resolved in the interval) looks every inch the anxious mother abroad. She has to dip into her operatic range only occasionally, but it's thrilling when she lets go. The crucial song "Dividing Day" is sensitively delivered, telling us that her cosseting of Clara is as much about lending meaning to her own loveless marriage as it is about protecting her daughter.
Disney and Instagram star Dove Cameron is winsome and winning as Clara, her vocals serviceable (the huge space doesn't do her any favours) and she nails her crucial song, "Clara's Tirade", successfully. That her somewhat arrested development seems more the product of her helicopter parenting than her childhood knock to the head is maybe the point - as an anti-helicopter parent myself, I certainly hope so!
While there's good support from Alex Jennings as ageing lothario, Signor Naccarelli, and a pleasing turn from Celinde Schoenmaker as Clara's would-be frenemy, Franca, Rob Houchen is sensational as Fabrizio. He is perfect as the lovelorn boy (there's a touch of Cinema Paradiso's teenage Salvatore in his desperation) and sings with such wonderfully judged emotion that I even forgave his irritating, if necessary, stumbling in and out of Italian, accent laid on with a trowel. And if an actor can overcome that handicap and still be likeable, you know it's a performance of the highest order.
This London premiere heralds an international tour for the show. One hopes it will go into more sympathetic houses, because Guettel's music is so entrancing in its genre-hopping virtuosity that it needs to be heard with as few distractions as possible.
And I cannot wait to see a boutique version in a mid-sized venue where the intimacy can be natural and not forced.
Photo Dewynters London