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:
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Reviewed – 2nd August 2018
“there is sometimes a lack of variation to the musical numbers and as a result the show starts to suffer from trying to survive on a diet of power ballads”
“The Broken Wings”, Khalil Gibran’s poetic novel has inspired paintings and pop songs. It has been adapted into a film and now a musical – which is probably the most natural evolution for a novel rich in musical references and rhythmical text.
The tale follows Khalil Gibran, living in 1923 in New York, as he reflects on his life and his experiences in the Middle East as an eighteen-year-old who has returned to turn-of-the-century Beirut, after five years living in America, to complete his education and retrace his heritage. He falls in love with Selma Karamy, the daughter of a family friend. However, Selma is betrothed to another man; the nephew of the powerful Bishop whose eye is on the Karamy family fortune.
‘Broken Wings’ has sometimes been described as the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of the Middle East, so it is fair to say that the young couple’s romance is doomed, as they fight to reconcile their love for one another in the face of the rules, traditions and expectations that their society lays on them.
Written by Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan it is faithfully adapted from Khalil Gibran’s novel. Gibran’s views on love, marriage, children, joy, pain, death and loss are today all too familiar. They hang on the walls of homes and sit on bedside tables and are preached at weddings and funerals. Yet when it was first published in 1912 it was met with hostility in the eastern Mediterranean for its treatment of religious corruption, the rights of women and the pursuit of wealth over personal happiness. The musical successfully highlights the key social issues of the time, reminding us too that they are just as relevant today, over a century later.
Naaman guides us through the story with a speaking voice, rich and assured, while effortlessly sliding into song. His younger counterpart (Rob Houchen) shares the same quality but with an added purity that no doubt reflects the wide-eyed hope and stoicism of the teenage Gibran as the first waves of suffering lap around his ankles before the tide threatens to pull him under. Houchen is well matched by Nikita Johal’s Selma, whose versatility allows her to breathe tender notes before riding the crest of a crescendo with an ease that belies her slight physicality. The harmonies are strong, especially so when the full ensemble take to the stage.
Yet the real star is orchestrator and conductor, Joe Davison, who leads the nine strong band through the evening. A masterful musical director his baton is on the pulse throughout. The musical arrangements are haunting and quite beautiful. However, there is sometimes a lack of variation to the musical numbers and as a result the show starts to suffer from trying to survive on a diet of power ballads. The highlights, for me, occur when the melodic modes and influences of the East shine through. I was expecting more of this within the score.
This is a beautiful and well-crafted show; rich in atmosphere that is heightened further by Nic Farman’s sumptuous lighting. It is evocative and true to Gibran’s themes, yet like a postcard platitude that many of his words have become, it triggers the mind without really gripping the heart. Full of Eastern promise yet veiled by oversweet Western appropriation.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
Theatre Royal Haymarket until 4th August