If "The Light in the Piazza," which opened Friday night at the Orpheum Theatre as the first stop of a national tour, had arrived without hype, six Tony Awards (one for Best Score) and encomiums such as "Best musical score in years," it might have been less of a disappointment.
The greatest romantic American musical score I know is Lerner & Loewe’s "Brigadoon," lush, rapturous, magical. "Piazza" is by Adam Guettel, the grandson of the immortal Richard Rodgers ("Oklahoma," "South Pacific"), and that is the most interesting thing about his lyrics and music.
Based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer, "Piazza" tells the story of an upper middle-class American mother (Christine Andreas) anxious to marry off her beautiful but strange daughter to an Italian suitor. There’s a dark secret involved, yet almost two-thirds of the show proceeds before we are let in on it. The Italian family never is, which makes for a queasy "happy ending."
Clara (Elena Shaddow) and Fabrizio (David Burnham) are like guppies mating in an aquarium, sweet and clueless. They are not, however, "romantic" — that label requires edgy unfulfillment. Colin Farrell and Gong Li in "Miami Vice" are romantic. Clara and Fabrizio are strictly from Hallmark cards.
Still, with better music, this finely tuned show — painterly sets by Michael Yeargan, fluid direction by Bartlett Sher, gorgeous lighting by Christopher Akerlind — would surely have more substance than this anodyne soap opera does.
Granted,this was only Guettel’s second show, but his style is exasperating and typical of today’s serious vocal composers. Yards of words are recitative bound in the middle of the voice. When drama is required, Guettel squirts unprepared high notes into the mix. Instead of thrilling, it makes you flinch.
It’s to the credit of the excellent cast that these high notes are hit without difficulty. But with no transitions and no soaring harmonic lift to the climaxes, the repeated comparisons to Puccini are beyond ludicrous.
That leaves Craig Lucas’ script — modestly witty, though the Italian clichés are appalling. Not all Italians, especially upper middle class ones, scream, wave their arms and carry on as if they were starring in a tomato sauce commercial.
As a play, "Piazza" seemed to please — the theater was full of well-behaved children enjoying themselves — but as a musical, where emotion is supposed to be carried by the songs, it’s pretty thin stuff.