Return to ‘Piazza’ sheds more light

NEW YORK — Broadway musicals thrive on repeat ticketbuyers, from the Rentheads who keep going back to “Rent” nine years on to the green gals who go wild for “Wicked” to the Q-Tips that can sing along to every bar of “It Sucks to Be Me” in “Avenue Q.” But while its following may be altogether quieter, “The Light in the Piazza” delivers arguably a richer yield on a second viewing than any show in town.

Back in the golden days of the American musical, movie trailers and theater ads were regularly emblazoned with superlative-laden promises of soaring romance and searing emotions. But those qualities have largely disappeared in the age of irony.

Ever since “The Producers” became a monster hit by artfully poking fun at musicals, self-satirizing shows have been multiplying like rabbits on Broadway, while roundups of the new tuners showcased in this year’s New York Musical Theater Festival and New York Intl. Fringe Festival revealed a preponderance of pastiche and lightweight pop pieces.

Such a candy-colored, nudge-wink climate for musicals makes the unapologetically classical treatment, nuanced characters and emotional complexity of “Piazza” read almost like a militant statement.

The show, by composer Adam Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas, opened at the Vivian Beaumont in April, initially for a limited run, and has been extended several times. Now selling through March, “Piazza” is tipped to play through summer 2006, placing it among Lincoln Center Theater’s top five longest-running hits.

The first wave of critical reaction — including mine — was mixed. But like so many plays and films that initially encountered strong reservations only to be reassessed with fresh appreciation later on (“Sweeney Todd” and “Follies” spring to mind), “Piazza” boasts a score that benefits significantly from repeated listens, and Bartlett Sher’s production has a dramatic texture that deepens the second time around.

On first exposure, Guettel’s songs seem somewhat inaccessible, lacking in discernible hooks. But closer acquaintance reveals that the score’s intricate melodies and Lucas’ book are very much of a piece, creating an operatic seamlessness rare in musicals.

Some of Guettel’s choices remain distancing. Despite being semi-justified by the communication impasse of the story’s linguistically challenged lovers, the composer’s repeated abandonment of actual lyrics in favor of “ah-ah-ah” vocalise seems unhip and hard-to-swallow for 21st-century audiences. But even that frilly embellishment is very much an organic expression of the characters in a show that endorses out-of-vogue notions of romance.

Not that “Piazza” is a syrupy throwback to gushing love stories from days gone by. On the contrary, the show’s focus is less its cross-cultural inamorati than the emotional conflict of a well-meaning American mother — a 1950s Southern matron who tries to protect her mentally stymied daughter from potential pain through what seems an ill-advised romance with an Italian.

And while it offers the glimmer of emotional fulfillment for that daughter, Lucas’ book, based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1958 novella, conveys a profound skepticism toward love and marriage that makes it decidedly contemporary. For every moment of swooning passion between young lovers Clara and Fabrizio, there’s a melancholy acknowledgment that love has failed Clara’s mother, Margaret.

In the latter role, Victoria Clark has not simply bagged her Tony and begun phoning in performances. Her characterization now seems even more finely etched, and the rush of emotion on her face during the bows indicates the actress continues to draw from a deep personal well every night.

Possibly the most penetrating five minutes on any musical stage in New York right now, Clark’s interpretation of “Dividing Day” is a wrenching statement of frayed affection, while she captures every troubling contradiction in her closing song, “Fable,” with its embrace of both the illusion and possibility of real love.

Kelli O’Hara has blossomed into the difficult role of Clara in satisfying ways, bringing darkness and decisiveness to this deceptively uncomplicated, open-hearted girl. Vocally, too, O’Hara seems to have grown more assured. When, in “The Beauty Is,” she yearns, “This is wanting something/This is needing something,” O’Hara taps into a gloriously romantic vein that was once a musical staple but has been largely frozen out by contempo cynicism.

The show’s new cast members are no less accomplished. As Fabrizio, Aaron Lazar may not quite equal the vocal clarity of his predecessor, Matthew Morrison, but he offers up his lovestruck character’s heart on a platter with an exquisite painfulness that’s even more affecting.

Replacing Mark Harelik, Chris Sarandon brings suave authority to Fabrizio’s father, while long-haul cast members Patti Cohenour and Sarah Uriarte Berry have acquired richer resonances in their roles as wives cognizant of the limited fulfillment their marriages can provide.

This week, Lincoln Center begins airing “Piazza” TV commercials for the first time, signaling its ongoing marketing commitment to the show.

For anyone lamenting the death of romance and drama in Broadway tuners, the longevity of this uncommonly delicate musical is cause to celebrate. And while entertainment is by its very nature an instant-gratification commodity, there’s something to be said for a show that takes time and repeat consideration to reveal its full rewards.

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