With Adam Guettel’s gorgeous melodies, a compelling narrative hook from Craig Lucas and moving themes about happiness and risk, there’s no question that “Light in the Piazza” is Broadway-worthy, capable of attracting both an enthusiastic audience and boffo reviews. The important stuff already has bounced into place. But despite a trio of fine performances, Bartlett Sher’s production (which began in Seattle and now has landed at Chi’s Goodman Theater) is significantly flawed. It seems afraid to become the only thing it can and should be: a serious, atmospheric show with weighty themes.
Time and again, Sher shoots himself in the foot by backing away from the musical’s powerful emotional substance in favor of broad parody and comic shtick. This material not only isn’t funny; it actually stops the audience from empathizing with the show’s potentially touching characters and ideas. The production keeps lurching uneasily away from the material’s aesthetic bearings and starts looking like a commercial for Pizza Hut featuring jerky, overheated Italians.
Perhaps the creatives are worrying too much about a perceived need to lighten up the Guettel-Lucas pasta. This is folly. Instead of forcing fine thesps like Kelli O’Hara or Victoria Clark to back away from truth every time they get fully juiced up, the show should instead fully embrace its emotional substance.
As he proved in “Prelude to a Kiss,” Lucas is a master of the sexy love story with the weird twist. This one is the 1950s tale of a young American woman pursued by a young Italian Lothario (Wayne Wilcox) while she’s visiting Florence along with her protective mother (Clark). Mama keeps saying there’s something wrong with her childlike daughter Clara (brought evocatively to life and beautifully sung by newcomer Celia Keenan-Bolger), and for most of the first act, Lucas keeps us guessing as to the truth. Is mama just overprotective and scared of her daughter’s sexuality? Or is there more to it than that?
By the second act, we know that the kid suffered a bad accident and is mentally stuck at the age of 12 — even though her body has continued to develop. And once that’s revealed (it causes quite a rumble in the theater), the show’s main issue becomes whether her mother should stop Clara’s impending marriage on the grounds it surely will end in tragedy or promote it as her beloved daughter’s one chance at happiness. This is the nub of the show — and it’s a beguiling nub indeed.
In gorgeous song after gorgeous song, Guettel explicates this dilemma from all sides. There’s a terribly sad ditty about a marriage gone sour (“Dividing Day”) and numerous other wrenching pleasures. There’s one missing number — we need to see why the mother changes her mind about her Clara’s marriage. But already it’s an intensely beautiful suite of songs.
If only the staging could be made to match the material. Already, O’Hara (“Sweet Smell”) has the beginnings of a splendid character as a spurned Italian wife. If she’s allowed to work truthfully, it only will add heft. And Mark Harelik, as the father of the young Italian boy, has another character ready for less arm-waving and more human roots.
“Light in the Piazza” won’t ever be “Hairspray”; it’s a serious show, and one that gives audiences much to embrace — an exotic locale, a mysterious book and remarkable music. It’s time that all the elements served the same purpose.