Theater Review: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion)

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by Marc Wheeler on October 18, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


From London’s Royal Festival Hall to L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion comes a rapturous new production of the Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza. Presented by LA Opera under the helm of Olivier Award-winning director Daniel Evans and conductor Kimberly Grigsby, Piazza is an exciting return to of one of the most gorgeous musicals in modern history.

Developed from Elizabeth Spencer’s 1962 novella and a subsequent film adaptation, The Light in the Piazza premiered in Seattle in 2003 and swept Broadway two years later. With a book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guetell, Piazza won six Tony Awards and was nominated for an additional five (including Best Musical and Best Book).

In the 1950s, Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming) and her daughter Clara (Dove Cameron), two well-to-do Southern belles vacationing in Florence, Italy, are taking in the historic sites of a sun-filled piazza, when Clara is hit by a gust of wind that tosses her hat into the hands of a beautiful stranger, local Florentine Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen). When he returns her hat their eyes lock. Margaret, nose-deep in a travel guide, suddenly realizes what’s happening between her daughter and the handsome Italian and quickly snuffs their fires. But fairytale love can’t be conquered easily — especially in a land of dreamers.

It’s terrific that LA Opera is programming worthy musicals — something which is increasingly happening at opera houses around the country. With its poetic book and score, Piazza was destined for its home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s an exciting diversion for seasoned patrons and an accessible intro for opera virgins. Guettel’s music is filled with complex layers, lush orchestrations, and intricate melodies. These operatic traits get amplified thanks to the sublime LA Opera Orchestra and a godsend of a cast.

International singing sensation Fleming is a powerhouse as Margaret, portraying the conflicted wife and mother with nuance and depth. Fleming’s vocals are stellar, this production’s most distinct stamp of an operatic treatment. So affected is her voice, however, audiences may occasionally consult the projected lyrics above the stage to understand her sung English. Regardless, her vocals resound with chilling, emotional impact.

Dove Cameron’s Clara is as superficially lovely as passionate. Cameron’s vibrato is surprisingly strong given her Disney-pop career, her performance radiating a profound maturity that refutes misdiagnosed innocence. Making his U.S. debut, British musical theater performer Rob Houchen as Italian charmer Fabrizio oozes with sex appeal and earnestness. His tenor soars, melting Clara’s heart and our own with an endearing, naive devotion.

Brian Stokes Mitchell is magnetic as Fabrizio’s father, Signor Naccarelli. The two-time Tony-winner commands the stage with his rich baritone, holding us in the palm of his hands with seductive gravitas.  Celinde Schoenmaker is a reality-checking fireball as Fabrizio’s sister-in-law, Franca. If this were Dickens, she’d be the Ghost of Relationships Future, haunting Clara with visions of romantic demise.

While this Piazza follows operatic tradition of projecting supertitles above the stage, only translations of the English lyrics are shown. By being withheld the Italian lyrics, we become lost American tourists. Themes of misunderstanding are interwoven throughout, particularly between mother/daughter and the Italian/American lovers and their families. Moments of fourth-wall breaking and sung “ahhhs” instead of words offer moments of clarity for both audience and characters.

Scenic Designer Robert Jones has created a dynamic, angular set featuring naked marble statues and old world architecture that blends Italy’s historic richness with modern life. Lit beautifully by Mark Henderson, it’s a work of art in its own right. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes harken an era of elegance and class, dressing up romance with a heightened air.

While the blossoming love between Clara and Fabrizio is central to Piazza — as are culture clashes, language barriers, and family drama — it’s really Margaret’s story. So much has changed since she last visited Italy, including years of marriage to a man (fuddy-duddy foil, Malcolm Sinclair) currently enmeshed in work back home. Such changes have caused her to cling to defenses this trip is determined to pry loose. When Margaret meets Fabrizio’s family, she begins to explain why the relationship between her daughter and the young boy won’t work. Mid-sentence, she stops. It’s a powerful moment from Fleming who milks the silence, portraying a woman at a crossroads. She could complete her thought — or not. In her choice (or acceptance) is a risk that changes everything.

Even as Margaret belts “love’s a fable/just a children’s fairy tale,” Piazza can’t help but offer wonder. As a musical it’s spectacular. As an opera it’s glorious. By heightening the musical stakes the drama explodes like Tuscan sunlight. Possibilities for uncommon happiness are rare. When they present themselves, take their hand.

photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

The Light in the Piazza
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
135 North Grand Ave.
ends on October 20, 2019
for tickets, call 213.972.8001
or visit LA Opera

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