Wednesday, July 31, 2013

LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA charms at The Shaw

Adam Guettel, coauthor of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, comes to writing musicals from a strong hereditary background.  His grandfather is Richard Rogers, one of the “fathers” of the American musical.  Yes, the co-writer of OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, and THE KING AND I.  His mother is Mary Rogers, author of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, WORKING, THE MAD SHOW and FROM A TO Z.

Guettel relates the story as that of “a mentally challenged girl [Clara] whose mother [Margaret] takes her to Florence on a vacation and, when the daughter falls in love with a handsome young Italian [Fabrizio] , decides to flout convention by letting her marry.”  He explains, “The secret of the story is the balance between the daughter’s innocent yearnings and the mother’s history of failed emotions.  If you haven’t gotten what you’ve wanted out of life and you figure your only chance of healing from that is to let your daughter have a chance, then why not let it happen.”  He also indicates, “The best part of love is that it is the opposite of innocence.”

The score has no relationship to the pop music tradition of Guettel’s grandfather and mother.  These are not always pretty sounds, but are more neo-romantic classical music, much like opera, operetta and Steven Sondheim.  There are unexpected harmonic shifts, the language switches from Italian to English. 

The chords and melody are often counterpoint, they don't always parallel each other.  The music being played by the orchestra, and the tones being sung aren't the same, so the resulting sound may be perceived as discordant.   People don't go out of the theatre humming the music or singing the songs.  There aren't any Lerner and Lowe or Stephen Schwartz songs in this show.  It's a different type of musical theatre animal.

The 2005 Broadway production ran 504 performances.  The cast included Matthew Morrison, now of FAME fame.

Interestingly, on June 15, 2006, shortly before its closing night, the show was broadcast on PBS television’s LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER, drawing more than two million viewers and setting in motion a national touring production.

Shaw’s production, presented on the postage stamp-sized thrust stage in the Court House Theatre, is graced with a clever fragmented set consisting of three classical arches and a small platform that easily changes from street scene, to hotel room, to retail store, to church, to living room.  The musicians are tucked behind the set, in view of the audience.

The well staged sophisticated musical is creatively directed by Jay Turvey.  There is no choreography, and the story line is enmeshed with the music.

The score contains no songs that have become well known although “Love to Me,” “The Light in the Piazza,” and “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” are all beautiful.  In “Aiutami” Guettel writes a discordant tune that perfectly parallels Clara’s chaotic inner feelings and hysterical outburst.

The Shaw cast is universally superb.  Jacqueline Thair creates in Clara a woman/child who, after being kicked by a pony at her childhood birthday party, is forever stuck in the emotional state of a preteen.  Thair is completely believable when she becomes lost, doesn’t get her way, or falls quickly in love and wants to get married without thinking of consequences.  She possess a lovely singing voice.

Handsome Jeff Irving creates a Fabrizio so bound up in young love, that we believe he can overlook Clara’s difficulties and take care of her, thus creating an almost fairy tale conclusion.  He has a powerful and expressive singing voice.

Patty Jamieson, the up-tight southern belle of a mother makes us believe that she has her daughter’s best interests at heart as she fights through life with a controlling husband.

Julain Molnar is believable as Fabrizio’s father.  The rest of cast is equally excellent.

Capsule judgement:  Shaw’s THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is a special night of musical theatre that might not be to everyone’s liking.  To appreciate the show, the viewer must put aside an attitude of what a musical should sound like and embrace this “different” approach.  I, for one, loved the story, the music and the production.

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA runs through October 13 in the Court House Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit or call 1-800-511-7429.