“The Light in the Piazza,” the highly anticipated new musical from playwright-director Craig Lucas and composer-lyricist Adam Guettel, is unlikely to be — in this form — Broadway-bound. Its story, while romantic, is not at all sentimental. Its music, while lovely, is not easily hummable. And these are to be counted among the show’s many, many charms.
“Piazza” is less a musical, really, than a chamber opera. Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1959 novella of the same title, it centers on a small domestic drama. A proper American mother (Victoria Clark) and her grown daughter (Celia Keenan-Bolger) take an extended sojourn to Italy. The daughter, Clara, falls in love with a young Florentine, Fabrizio (Steven Pasquale). The mother, Margaret, initially objects to the union — for reasons she cannot disclose to Fabrizio, his family or even her daughter.
As the situation slowly finds its resolution, we are introduced to several couples in various stages of marriage. That institution — which may or may not be Clara and Fabrizio’s future — is cast in a rather dim light.
At Seattle’s Intiman Theater, the story unfolds on Loy Arcenas’ simple set consisting of a shimmering backdrop that changes color with Christopher Akerlind’s Mediterranean lighting. A five-piece orchestra (violin, cello, bass, keyboard and — evocatively — harp) is arranged on one side, limiting the action to two-thirds of the stage. Seattle choreographer Pat Graney has set many of the musical numbers in a minimalist style: Songs are animated with precise gestural phrases and slowly moving tableaux vivants.
While much of the show feels understated or restrained, the score is ambitious and often lush. At its best, it is reminiscent of Sondheim — haunting and poetic. Margaret’s meditation on the emotional distance that has come between her and her Stateside husband, “Dividing Day,” is melodic but brooding. Clara’s cascading “The Beauty Is” (“This is wanting something … This is praying for it”) captures the yearning and uncertainty of youth.
Guettel’s lyrics can be rapturous, so it’s a shame they can’t be heard better. Throughout the show, sung monologues and dialogues — many critical to the plot — are lost. Sometimes they’re overpowered by the musicians; other times the performers seem to be struggling with the vocal range of the songs, and simply cannot be understood. (While most of the play is written in English, the Italian characters speak and sing briefly in Italian among themselves; it’s unfortunate that we can’t hear the difference.)
In all other respects, however, the performances are fine. Mark Harelik is suave and wise as Fabrizio’s father. Kelli O’Hara is tart and commanding as Fabrizio’s unhappy sister-in-law. Keenan-Bolger’s characterization of Clara is at first puzzling, until a plot point is revealed that makes her perf — in retrospect — make perfect sense. (That’s a nice “aha” moment, right before the intermission.) Clark, as the sensible but loving mother, Margaret, is exquisite. A truer match of look, manner and role is hard to imagine.
“The Light in the Piazza” was born at the Sundance Playwrights Retreat and has been workshopped at Sundance Theater Lab. After its Seattle debut, it moves on to Chicago’s Goodman Theater. So far, Lucas and Guettel have deliberately kept the scale of the work compact, not wanting to push it too far, too fast. Whether its delicate frame could withstand more elaborate production values is hard to say. But I, for one, like it the way it is: small, simple and occasionally sublime.