Exquisite as Bartlett Sher’s production of “The Light in the Piazza” is on so many levels, it’s ultimately the single element of a mother’s emotional journey that resonates, due in large part to the flawlessly calibrated work of Victoria Clark, lending poignancy, grace and truth to a problematic show. As they stroll past the fountain and cross New York’s most Italianate piazza to enter the Lincoln Center theater, those who care about the American musical will already be heavily invested in this ambitious collaboration between composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and playwright Craig Lucas. How they feel upon exiting will be a matter of sharp division.
Adapted from Mississippi-born writer Elizabeth Spencer’s 1958 novella, this Jamesian tale of an American mother and daughter spending a summer in Italy, and of the mother’s anxious attempt to shield her fragile daughter from a potentially disastrous romance, seems on the surface to be too subtle and delicate to translate effectively into a musical. (It was filmed in 1961, with Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton.) But while it takes considerable time to identify the slender story’s chief themes, Lucas’ book is descriptive and sensitively observed, by far the more successful half of the collaboration. It’s the music that seems ill-conceived and unsatisfying.
As he showed with the flavorful folk Americana of “Floyd Collins,” Guettel has a gift for finding the right musical idiom to correspond to his material. His choice of impressionistic faux Italian chamber opera is quite appropriate here. Despite the show’s admirable intelligence, however, the elements fail to jell.
While the score is consistently pleasant, it lacks body, and the songs themselves seem to defy emotional interpretation. There’s a frustrating shortage of robust melodies that linger in the head; instead, the score unfolds, with all its jagged beauty, almost like recitative or interstitial music, which should be punctuating the fully developed songs that rarely arrive.
Too often, also, Guettel’s lyrics seem to run out of steam, either drowning in the lush orchestrations or dissolving into light operatic vocalise, which furthers the sense of underscore masquerading as score.
That the musically underwhelming show remains as absorbing as it does is a credit to the measured work of director Sher; of Jonathan Butterell, who did the musical staging; and of the accomplished ensemble, led by Clark in what will surely be a breakout role for this talented musical performer.
Displaying from the outset an assured ability to populate the full depth of the Vivian Beaumont’s expansive stage despite a relatively small cast, Sher slowly brings to life a corner of Florence’s famed Piazza della Signoria in 1953 during the opening number, “Statues and Stories.” Autumn leaves blow across Michael Yeargan’s grand set, followed by various townspeople taking up positions as prim-looking American tourist Margaret Johnson (Clark) and her girlish 26-year-old daughter, Clara (Kelli O’Hara), enter.
The first encounter between Clara and her lovestruck Italian suitor Fabrizio (Matthew Morrison) has been faithfully transposed to the stage as a stirring set piece built around Clara’s straw hat.
Unlike Spencer’s book, which reveals early on the cause of Clara’s unguarded spontaneity and Margaret’s overprotective concern, Lucas withholds key information about the girl’s emotional and mental state until almost intermission. That reticence sits well with Margaret’s tendency to dance around the truth, but it also dims the conflict, making much of the first act seem a rather slight romance. Only when Mrs. Johnson phones to inform husband Roy (Beau Gravitte) back in Winston-Salem that Clara is being courted does the show take on emotional weight.
Sung by Clark with commanding, unsentimental forthrightness, Margaret’s song “Dividing Day” is a melancholy reflection on the actual moment long ago when the chill crept into her marriage. It provides an anchor for the show, repainting this seemingly buttoned-up, proper woman as someone whom love has eluded. By endorsing and fostering the illuminating love between Clara and Fabrizio despite her fears, Margaret is given a chance at redemption, for her own lost love and for her guilt over the accident that compromised her daughter’s capacity to live a fulfilling adult life.
A gentle frisson of romance between Margaret and Fabrizio’s father (Mark Harelik) adds further to the character’s blossoming, but this is achieved mostly through her assertiveness, going against her husband’s wishes and taking great risks both for herself and her daughter. “I played a tricky game in a foreign country,” Margaret says early on, in one of her many asides to the audience.
While these moments work well and help cement Margaret not only as the narrator but as the heart of this fable of love and hope, Lucas falters in giving direct-address dialogue to a second character.
In the awkwardly staged number “Aiutami” near the start of act two, in which turmoil has been induced by Margaret and Clara’s sudden departure for Rome, Fabrizio’s mother (Patti Cohenour), who speaks only Italian, breaks character to enlighten the audience — in English — about the hypocrisy of her marriage. The departure clashes with the show’s overall tone and seems unresourceful for a writer of Lucas’ insightfulness. The scene does underline, however, the musical’s skeptical view of marriage, echoed not only in the brittle union between Clara’s parents but also between Fabrizio’s womanizing brother, Giuseppe (Michael Berresse), and his wife, Franca (Sarah Uriarte Berry).
Graduating to a more central role after playing Franca in the show’s developmental phases in Seattle and Chicago, O’Hara is a sunny, attractive presence with a winning mix of vulnerability and defiance. Her soprano veers at times toward shrillness, however, and she doesn’t quite muster the interpretive subtlety required for some uncommonly difficult songs.
In a role vastly different from his smooth dreamboat Link Larkin in “Hairspray,” Morrison impresses with his full-bodied, confident vocals. He brings tender awkwardness to a young man stripped of self-consciousness and consumed by a brand of passion that seems patented by Italians. Harelik tempers his character’s arrogance with warmth and perceptiveness. All the actors manage more than passable Italian.
The cast looks very fine in the smart ’50s chic of Catherine Zuber’s costumes, and some of the sweeping dimension lacking in the score is delivered in Yeargan’s beautiful, intricately integrated sets, which seem to float into endless new configurations as they create multiple locations. The sumptuous design is capped off by Christopher Akerlind’s painterly lighting, which takes an evocative cue from the show’s title.