‘The Light in the Piazza’: It’s love, actually

Portland Playhouse's version of the sublime musical captures its sweetness and pain

A friend of mine is an avid fan of the composer Adam Guettel, and so in 2007 when a touring production of the musical The Light in the Piazza came to town in the Broadway Across America series, I got tickets for my friend and his wife. The show was marvelous. It even accomplished the rare feat of turning the cavernous Keller Auditorium, usually such an inert space, to its advantage, creating a sense of visual and emotional expansiveness.

As I sat next to him during the show, I was certain he was enjoying it as much as I was. That was an underestimation. When the house lights went up after the poignant finale, I saw that he was a mess. The man — hardly someone prone to effusiveness or extremes of mood — had been sweating and crying so much that he looked like a puddle wearing a shirt.

Cross-cultural awareness: Meredith Kaye Clark, Michael Hammack. Photo: Brud Giles

Cross-cultural awareness: Meredith Kaye Clark, Michael Hammack. Photo: Brud Giles

To him, it was about the beauty and power of Guettel’s artful harmonies; being bathed in them for a couple of hours at a stretch was an overwhelming experience.

As John Lahr wrote a decade ago in The New Yorker, “The Light in the Piazza doesn’t want to make theatregoers feel good; it wants to make them feel deeply.”

For me, that well of deep feeling is tapped by Guettel’s graceful blending of Broadway, art song, opera and pop elements, and his deceptively articulate lyrics. But also by a story — from  Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, adapted with deftness and depth by playwright Craig Lucas — that doesn’t shy away from emotional or ethical complexity, that walks us courageously into uncertainty rather than peddle the blithe banalities that sell T-shirts, yet still imparts a hopeful radiance.

The production that opened Saturday at Portland Playhouse is on a very different scale than that lavish bus-and-trucker seven years ago, yet it’s not far off in its impact. Directed by Brian Weaver, with musical direction by Eric Nordin, it strips away the gossamer orchestrations and focuses on the voices of its skillful cast, trusting them to tell the story in all its passion and nuance.

That story is at heart a love story, a love-at-first-sight story, even. On vacation in Florence, Italy, Clara Johnson, a sunny young American woman, loses her hat in the wind. Fabrizio Naccarelli, a handsome younger Italian, catches and returns it and finds himself instantly smitten.

So far, so sweet. The inevitable impediments to romance begin with Clara’s protective mother, Margaret, who appears determined to keep her daughter’s focus on historical landmarks. It’s 1953, and the Johnsons are well-to-do Southerners, yet it’s so clear that both the would-be lovers are such innocents that Mom’s obstructionism isn’t a reaction to some prejudice about lusty Italians but rather something more muddled, something secretive. Signs of Clara’s odd naiveté and impulsiveness pile up until the end of the first act, when Margaret, in a confession addressed directly to the audience, explains: At her 12th birthday party, Clara was kicked in the head by a pony. Now 26, she hasn’t developed much beyond that age intellectually or emotionally.

This dilemma effectively puts Margaret at the center of a love story that is not her own. How far should she go to quash a romance that she suspects will disappoint all involved? Is she obligated to tell Fabrizio’s family about Clara’s largely hidden disability? Or does Clara deserve the right to make her own choices, take her own risks? If Clara has a chance at the kind of abiding love she’d once hoped for from her own now-distant husband, might that be a redemption for them both?

While Margaret navigates all this, the story maintains an engaging liveliness, as she and Clara get to know Fabrizio’s spirited family.

Lyrics and dialogue toggle between English, pidgin English and Italian, and there’s both humor and poignance in the scaling of the language barrier. “Now is I am happiness with you,” Fabrizio sings in the lovely Passeggiata, and there’s something wonderfully right within the corkscrew grammar of the phrase: “Now is” emphasizes the present moment yet also hints at the permanence of this state; “I am happiness” suggests something profound and essential within Fabrizio; “with you” is the catalyst for all this transformation.

What’s going on between them goes beyond words, of course, and seldom does a piece of theater deal so effectively with the ineffable. “I know the sound of touch me, I think I hear the sound of wrap your arm around me,” they sing to each other in Say It Somehow. More importantly, as Frank Rich writes in the notes to the Broadway cast recording, “at a certain point words disappear entirely…to be supplanted by gorgeous arias that are all music, as if lovers’ hearts really were in their throats.”

Aglow in the piazza: the light shines. Photo: Brud Giles

Aglow in the piazza: the light shines. Photo: Brud Giles

Which brings us back to the brilliant music. Guettel’s songs don’t drape feelings over you like a heavy cloak, as too much modern theater music does. Instead they seem to let their rich emotional colors hang in the air, suspended and shimmering, at once more subtle and less mediated. The happy songs will bring a tear to your eye, the sad songs will buoy your soul with optimism.

As Guettel told Lahr in 2005, “I wanted to give voice to the internal arias and reachings, those flights of the heart that I’ve had for romantic completion.”

On Broadway, those flights reached their heights with refined and detailed orchestrations. Here, Weaver and Nordin go in a different direction altogether. The playbill lists a quartet including violin and cello, but by opening night that ensemble was pared to just Nordin on piano and Tyson Bickle on bass. Nordin’s playing is gorgeous, with a sensitive touch and rhythmic alacrity that make the most of the score’s melodic abundance. Such a spare approach was a gamble, but it pays off beautifully.

The strong cast of singers also is a big part of why the approach works. Susannah Mars, Portland’s queen of musical theater, stars as Margaret, and while the portrayal feels a bit too brittle (in Act I, she seems more irritated by her daughter than worried for her), the singing soars. Meredith Kaye Clark brings out just the right mix of exuberance and fragility as Clara and has a nice chemistry with the sweet-voiced Michael Morrow Hammack, whose Fabrizio is almost incandescent in his innocent ardor. Among the supporting roles, David Meyers is suavely sly as Signor Naccarelli and Jennifer Goldsmith, as his daughter-in-law, shines in her solo song, The Joy You Feel.

The show ends with a kind of tentative joy, a mingling of hope and caution: “Love, if you can, and be loved,” Margaret sings in “Fable,” a song that both critiques storybook notions of romance and honors the true-heart yearnings that underlie them. Like this show as a whole, it’s a reminder that love is worth the risky dive into the well of deep feeling.


The Light in the Piazza continues through March 30 at Portland Playhouse. Ticket and schedule information here.

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