While some musicals demand sweep and choruses, tuners rooted in the intimate and the internal may adapt well to a reduction in scope. A new chamber version of “The Light in the Piazza” not only makes this transition with grace, it positively thrives. Preeming in Vermont — and with composer Adam Guettel’s involvement — this glistening production points the way for other theaters to stage this ravishing, risk-taking work.
The Weston Playhouse is a jewel of a theater in the mountains of southern Vermont, not far from where “Piazza” was originally conceived at Guettel’s summer home. Weston a.d. Steve Stettler has assembled a first-class New York cast to launch a small production of the musical that calls for eight actors and a five-piece string ensemble composed of piano, violin, bass, cello, harp (and sometimes viola).
Guettel, working with music director Andy Einhorn, has brought the scale down without losing the effect of the original’s sumptuous, smart and rapturously romantic score.
Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel (which was adapted as a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Rossano Brazzi), the story centers on Margaret Johnson (Theresa McCarthy), a proper, wealthy Southern matron touring Florence in 1953 with her sweet daughter Clara (Lauren Worsham).
When Clara, who is simple-minded as the result of a childhood accident, falls in love and wants to marry Fabrizio (Kevin Worley), a handsome, young Italian who, because of the language and cultural barriers, is unaware of the girl’s limitations, protective Margaret is torn, calling into question her own issues of love, marriage and motherhood.
McCarthy brings a steely Southern resolve to Margaret’s early opposition to the budding relationship. Her voice — along with the vocal abilities of the entire cast — is up to the challenges of the demanding and at times near operatic score. Though down-sized, this show still demands exceptional talent — which it gets in the Weston production.
Worsham and Worley bring innocence and passion to their roles. Worsham shows a nicely realized arc as the fragile Clara comes into her own; Worley’s Fabrizio is less defined due to the character’s limited English, but the perf nevertheless makes you believe in instant, “some enchanted evening” kind of love.
Sarah Uriarte Berry reclaims the role of Fabrizio’s volatile sister-in-law, splendidly. David Bonanno, Michelle Rios, Jonathan Raviv and Michael Berry also offer impeccable support.
Russell Metheny’s rolling classical arches offers a myriad of Italian settings, simply and well; Kendall Smith ably provides the important titular lighting; Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes re-create the primness, prettiness and elegance of ’50s fashions.
Ultimately, the intimate production brings the aud closer into the heart of things.
But, also, the mere revisiting of the show makes one further appreciate Craig Lucas’ many-layered book, the rich score that becomes ever-haunting on repeated listenings and especially Guettel’s nuanced, character-driven lyrics, underrated by many when the show opened in 2005. Just as its original cast recording allowed more people to discover the brilliance and beauty of “Piazza,” this version will also give the work additional viability and bring more auds to one of the great romantic musicals of its era.