Intimacy and nuance — in the setting, the perfs and music — propelled the popularity of “The Light in the Piazza,” turning extended runs into six Tony Awards and now a healthy road edition. Transferred to a proscenium stage from the Vivian Beaumont, “Piazza” has become distant and more showy — its weightiness is more apparent and it feels like a vastly different show than the model it is based on. The merits of the original remain — the substantial book, the costumes, orchestrations and sets — but some of the magic has been diminished.
The focus has shifted from the original, making this more the story of a daughter blossoming than a mother setting free her daughter and wondering if her home life can ever be restored to a loving environment. The Ahmanson presentation amplifies the notion that “Light in the Piazza” has star vehicle potency and that either of the two leading ladies is in a position to command the show. Victoria Clark took the reins in New York as the mother and did so with a variation on a series of muted tones; Elena Shaddow, as the daughter Clara, is the driving force in L.A. and she plays it like a coming-out party.
Helmer Bartlett Sher has opted for a broad and booming interpretation of Craig Lucas’ book and Adam Guettel’s mesmerizing score, mining laughs at every turn in the first act and allowing big-voiced Shaddow to give every number — make that every line of every number — a booming suitable-for-Disney interpretation. Wowed as an audience may be by her vocal prowess, Shaddow has left little room for nuance or even girlishness in her singing. Her onstage journey, however, is filled with confusion, love, doubt and enthusiasm and she gets the right tone out of each emotion, switching one on and the other off and allowing no ambiguity to creep in.
As vital as she is — it is her love story, after all — her mother Margaret (Christine Andreas) is the pivotal force. It’s her idea to take her daughter from their Winston-Salem, N.C., home to Florence, Italy, where she spent her honeymoon. Dad, Roy, (Brian Sutherland) is being upped to senior vice president so he stays home, but the overseas phone calls indicate a less-than-cozy home.
It’s in a square that Clara meets Fabrizio Naccarelli (David Burnham) and, boom, love at first sight. Margaret rebuffs Fabrizio’s advances with a steely eye and steady hand. This is 1953, after all — Italy is to be adored for its art and history; the citizenry is to look at, not touch.
Clara, we will learn is 26, and for the last 16 years, Margaret has been sheltering her from an adult world she most likely won’t comprehend; her emotional development has been stunted since a childhood accident. (That plot line has been a sticking point for the show’s detractors; in the Ahmanson production, Clara’s “handicap” blends seamlessly with the Italian family’s deficiencies in the commitment department.)
Much as Margaret tries to pull Clara away from Fabrizio — they even travel to Rome — they succumb easily to the forces of romance. Clara is wooed again and if that isn’t enough, Fabrizio’s father Signor Naccarelli (David Ledingham) puts the moves on mom.
The whirlwind within the whirlwind concerns Fabrizio’s womanizing brother Giuseppe (Jonathan Hammond) and his wife Franca (Laura Griffith), a childless couple perpetually at odds with each other and certainly overshadowed by the pending nuptials of Fab and Clara.
The hard and heavy approach to Guettal’s score, however, does in Franca in her one chance to speak her mind, “The Joy You Feel.” Tune is full of cataclysmic revelations in the lyrics and ups and downs in the melody. It should be a dramatic revelation, but here the music — and the singers — are asked to hammer away at the tunes, stunting the dramatic effect of the score’s standouts.
The approach most affects Andreas, who gets the closing number (“Fable”) all to her lonesome and struggles to bring it up to the level at which everything else has been played. She does well playing stern and concerned but in song she seems much more focused on hitting notes than expressing a lyric.
Burnham is a polar opposite — pure giddiness and charm with nary a care. He has found his wheelhouse in his four songs and his vocal approach is a carbon copy of joyousness from one song to the next. His voice, along with those of the rest of the cast, is perfectly enjoyable; there’s just little sense that they’re fully invested emotionally in the songs.
Conductor Kimberley Grigsby emphasizes the lack of definition of a beat in much of the music, allowing the orchestra to swirl melodies under the singers. It has a funny effect — when catchy segments are reprised, they become a breath of fresh air. The orchestral denseness — maybe its the hall and maybe its the sound system, which was certainly problematic on opening night — made the vocal mom & pop pas de deux of “Let’s Walk” an absolute delight, the lone truly airy moment in a show that, if it has a shortcoming, is the lack of a comedic break in the score.
Michael Yeagan’s sparse yet engaging sets fill the Ahmanson stage quite well and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting sets a number of evocative moods. Catherine Zuber’s costumes remain eye-popping.