Review: The Light in the Piazza, Southbank Centre. The FRANK Mag’ July/Aug ed. 2019

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The Light in the Piazza – review, The Southbank Centre, July 2019

By Tamsin Flower

Book by Craig Lucas, Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel.

Italy – romanticised by all, from Shakespeare to Monteverdi, E.M. Forster to Nora Roberts. We know all the romantic codes that make up fiction about that great, sensual, boot in the mediterranean. There must be an ingenue and her chaperone, there must be a sexual threat in the form of an italian heart-throb and there must be scenes of awakening and realisation around mythic statues and piazzas. It is the stuff of fantasy sometimes encountered in life.


The Light in the Piazza, a new musical with book by Craig Lucas and lyrics by Adam Guettal, employs all of these tropes without hesitation. Set in the fifties and adapted from Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel, the show is cast as sumptuously as its subject matter, with performers from the parallel worlds of opera, TV and musical theatre occupying the star spots. Renne Flemming plays mother, Margaret Johnson to daughter, Clara with poise, depth, velvetine vibrato and a credible southern US accent. Dove Cameran’s interpretation of daughter, Clara, holds true to the simple emotional range of the script. With a background as a Disney kid, she is a skilled singer and demonstrates ease with the demands of the music, often transcending it with purity of pitch and tone. Rob Houchen delivers a skilled performance as Clara’s beau, embracing the operatic opportunities offered by his role as an enamoured Italian. Indeed, the show self-consciously exhibits its commercial potential as a hybrid of opera and musical theatre with numbers such as Il Mondo Era Vuoto and Aiutami.


The exposition is played out through the overture as we see and hear the Johnson women’s relationship meander through the piazza. Mrs Johnson is the archetype of a protective mother to Clara, who is the original innocent – curious, and unselfconsciously beautiful. Gentle jokes around North American and Italian cultural differences begin here and continue throughout, sometimes with effect and at other times with the slight scent of time-filling. However, all is harmless, evocatively designed, and the story is easy to read. The Johnson’s encounter with Clara’s soon-to-be lover, Fabrizio Naccarelli, is a meet-cute involving the wind and Clara’s hat. Fabrizio’s tame pursuit of this golden girl leads to the Johnsons meeting the Naccarelli family, a tryst that sees Clara losing her barings at night-time and a dispute about the lovers’ intended marriage because of Clara’s age.


The strand of complexity running through The Light in the Piazza is intimated in the first half by Clara’s mother. Margaret prevaricates over allowing the romance to take place, as punctuated by some nice tragi-comic exchanges between herself and Mr Johnson on the phone. Our interest is piqued when Mrs Johnson refers to Clara being different from other girls and in need of more protection. As an audience we feel comfortable with following this trail, however the narrative breadcrumbs dropped until the last third are very light of touch. The treatment of Clara’s disability or injury provokes pause for thought. Finally, we are told via a monologue from Mrs Johnson that Clara has suffered a head injury in a riding accident and that this has effectively frozen her mental age. The denouement of the show is a wedding – a virtuous, happy wedding that is advocated by Mrs Johnson in the belief that love will conquer all. The presence of Clara’s disability and the show’s rather 1950’s approach to glossing over its nature and implications create a tonal incongruence that isn’t entirely resolved. Although this theme may be apt for melodrama, we are a contemporary audience conditioned to approach such issues with detail, on the nose.


The Light in the Piazza is exceptional because of its enticing premise and sublime score, as delivered by genuinely talented and shiny stars. Although it doesn’t quite fulfil its rose-tinted promise, the sound of any narrative gear-shifts will be drowned out by dreamily orchestrated, gorgeous songs like ‘The Beauty Is’ and ‘Statues and Stories.’ 


Following its run at The Southbank Centre, You can catch The Light in the Piazza in LA and Chicago this Autumn/Winter.


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