The Light in the Piazza
Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed – 18th June 2019
“Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous”
The Light in the Piazza lands in its London premiere with a level of prestige – it scooped up no less than six Tony Awards during its Broadway run in 2005. While the musical consequently carries with it an inherent air of quality, it also finds itself emblematic of the genre as a whole, as it glosses over and romanticises subject matter which deserves a little more nuance.
Based on the 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer (which was also released as a film two years later), The Light in the Piazza follows the journey of Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming), whose developmentally disabled daughter Clara (Dove Cameron) falls in love while the pair are on holiday in Florence with Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen). Margaret grapples with letting go of her child and allowing her to live independently with Fabrizio, although in doing so she never fully discloses the nature of Clara’s disability to the Naccarelli family; it’s a decision that comes with huge ethical implications and ramifications, albeit ones that the show seems quite happy to ignore.
Adam Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous, and Kimberly Grigsby’s conducting makes the music feel like it fully lives and breathes with the characters and the story. Despite that the style starts to feel somewhat overfamiliar in the latter half the show, there are still a variety of hugely enjoyable numbers, such as Say It Somehow and Let’s Walk. Guettel’s lyrics and Craig Lucas’ libretto are full of quirks, wit, and humanity, but neither feel like they genuinely facilitate any true depth to the themes or characters. Despite this, there are some excellent performances on display in Piazza, particularly Fleming as Margaret, who keeps guilt and uncertainty bubbling underneath a frothy exterior, and Alex Jennings as Signor Naccarelli, whose charm and self-assuredness beautifully counterbalances the more melodramatic facets of the other characters. Every single member of the cast delivers immaculate vocals, and Robert Jones’ scenic design and Mark Henderson’s lighting harmoniously provide some stunning aesthetics. Piazza is undoubtedly a visual and aural treat.
However, the substance simply isn’t there to support it. Understanding and misunderstanding are prominent themes in Piazza – the Johnsons don’t speak great Italian and the Naccarellis don’t speak great English so their meanings aren’t always perfectly conveyed to each other, and some scenes and songs are entirely in Italian, so that the audience have to rely on the visual storytelling alone (which, thanks to Daniel Evans’ direction, is stellar). It suggests that the love between Clara and Fabrizio transcends barriers such as language or disability, but the fact that Fabrizio falls so swiftly for a woman with the mental and emotional capacities of a twelve-year-old draws allusions to the seedy over-sexualisation of young girls in society, and the fact that Fabrizio isn’t made aware of long-term effects that the disability will have on the relationship makes the romance feel unearned and untrue. And unfortunately, Piazza hinges itself on the romance.
Reviewed by Tom Francis
Photography by Dewynters
The Light in the Piazza
Royal Festival Hall until 5th July
Last ten shows covered by this reviewer:
Reviewed – 17th April 2019
“There were audible gasps of admiration from the audience at the moment one aspect of the set was revealed”
From book to film, book to stage or stage to film, literary works often make successful transitions to new media, but a theatrical interpretation of a film is one of the most difficult to pull off. How to cram all of the colour and spectacle of a much-loved feature on to a few square metres of bare boards? And how to make it work as a musical?
Amélie was an award-winning, quirky and nostalgic French romantic comedy released in 2001. Anyone who has seen it will have strong memories of its unique look and of the charismatic performance of Audrey Tautou as the shy waitress Amélie Poulain.
The Watermill Theatre is staging its own winning production of a musical adaptation of the film, written by Craig Lucas with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé, who also wrote the music. Originally premiered in the US in 2017, this new version has been re-worked for a British audience. According to Director Mike Fentiman, ‘Amélie is a musical that seeks connections… [with a] strange, foreign, melancholic, philosophical, gentle, elusive world’.
Watching this celebration of Parisian life after the disastrous fire at Notre Dame was a particularly poignant experience. Almost the entire story of the film is told on stage in a series of twenty five musical episodes that amongst others reference Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and gospel music. Amélie is brought up in the seventies by remote parents that protect her from the real world and from real feelings. She works as a waitress in a Paris café populated by lonely eccentrics who she determines to try to help, until she finally finds love herself.
The writing is witty and satisfyingly avoids the obvious. The first number contains a lovely theme that recurs throughout the show, performed by the entire cast playing, amongst others piano, flute, percussion strings and an accordion. This is a multi-talented group of performers, led by the charismatic and ‘mignon’ French-Canadian Audrey Brisson, with Chris Jared as Nino Quincampoix, the photo-booth obsessive, with whom she quickly becomes fascinated. His singing voice is a delightfully mellow contrast to her brighter sound.
Since the story is set in Paris in the 1990s, there is even a rollicking pastiche by a brilliantly swaggering Caolan McCarthy of Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, which was performed in 1997 at the funeral of Princess Diana. When much of the rest of the show is so animated, Johnson Willis brought a pleasingly quiet poignancy to his portrayal of Dufayel, the ‘glass man’. There were other delightful moments from the entire cast, not least Samuel Morgan-Grahame as Joseph and Fluffy, who managed to make a simple telephone call hilarious.
The design, by prize-winning Madeleine Girling, is simply a marvel. The stage at the Watermill is tiny, and enormous creativity has gone into providing spaces in which to represent the film’s many scenes. There were audible gasps of admiration from the audience at the moment one aspect of the set was revealed, with some wonderful detailing that beautifully captured the spirit of the film.
Somehow two pianos (with some unexpected surprises within), a dozen performers acting and singing whilst playing violins, cellos, double bass, flute and accordion and a photo-booth on wheels all manage to simultaneously bring the small space to delightful life thanks to the immaculate direction of Michael Fentiman. Movement direction by Tom Jackson Greaves deserves a special mention.
This is a fast-moving, feel-good and heartily recommended show.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Pamela Raith
Watermill Theatre until 18th May then UK Tour commences
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: