First the good news. How thrilling to hear the orchestra of Opera North backing up a Broadway score and contributing immeasurably to the lush richness of the sound. It’s also a privilege to welcome the celebrated Metropolitan opera diva Renee Fleming to the stage in a non-classical role. Best of all, though, is the excitement of discovering a brilliant new talent who turns out to be the star of the show. But more on that in a moment.
The not-so-good good news is that The Light in the Piazza promises more than it delivers. Based on the 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer, which two years later was adapted into a sumptuous film with a screenplay by Julius Epstein, the man who wrote Casablanca, this musical incarnation, with a score by Adam Guettel and a book by Craig Lucas, is a rather choppy affair that trades in too many clichés and, in the end, is never as involving as it should be.
For the uninitiated, it’s the simple story of Margaret Johnson, a wealthy middle-aged American tourist from Winston-Salem who, together with her 26-year-old daughter Clara, revisits Florence, Italy, where she and her husband spent their honeymoon.
In one of that city’s piazzas, Clara has a chance encounter with a personable young man called Fabrizio Naccarelli, and it’s love at first sight. The young couple instantly bond, and when Fabrizio introduces mother and daughter to his equally personable father, it is clear that Romeo has found his Juliet. But there’s a problem that has nothing to do with the differences in their families.
It turns out that Clara was kicked in the head by a pony at a very young age and, as a result, is mentally backward. There’s nothing wrong with her body, but she has the mind of a 10-year-old. Fabrizio and his family somehow haven’t noticed anything amiss other than that Clara is six years older than Fabrizio, and the big question that provides the show with what little narrative it has is whether Margaret should tell the Naccarellis the truth about her daughter.
Guettel’s lushly orchestrated score brings forth glorious shafts of sound, but lacks the melodic gift possessed by his illustrious grandfather, Richard Rodgers. The songs are full of intensity and emotion but shy on melody. What Piazza cries out for are a couple of Andrew Lloyd Webber-like blockbuster tunes to earworm their way into the memory.
Another concern, which also applies to Lucas’ book, is that some of the lyrics Clara sings (and quite a bit of her dialogue too) give no indication that she has the mind of a 10-year-old. On the contrary. The title song and "Say It Somehow" are just too sophisticated for her. The book – with its lengthy patches of untranslated Italian dialogue and its attempt to turn Margaret, the musical’s most complex and rounded character, into a stereotypical American tourist with her head constantly buried in a guide book the way young people today bury their heads in their smartphones – is often patronising and lazy.
Fortunately Margaret is played by Fleming, whose glorious voice and attractive physical appearance go some distance in papering over the cracks and the jerky jump-cuts in the libretto. As her daughter, Dove Cameron can be vocally somewhat shrill. The problem with Clara is to convince us – apart from the childish scrawl of her handwriting, which is alluded to – that she still has the mind of a 10-year-old. It’s not Cameron’s fault, but rather the writer’s, that I remained unconvinced.
Director Daniel Evans, working on an all-purpose outdoor set (by Robert Jones) that uses props and statuary to differentiate the show’s various locales, has cast the quintessentially English Alex Jennings as Fabrizio’s charming father (Rosanno Brazzi played him in the movie). Being the thorough professional Jennings is, he makes it work. In supporting roles, Marie McLachlan, Celinde Schoenmalker, Malcolm Sinclair and Liam Tamne help populate a musical far too intimate for a chorus.
The star of the show, however, is Rob Houchen as Fabrizio. I knew of him only from his 2017 TV appearance on the BBC programme West Side Stories: The Making of a Classic. He was featured as Tony, and vocally was the most thrillingly sung Tony I have ever heard. On this occasion, as well as soliciting the loudest applause of the evening for the warmth, strength and beauty of his voice, he turns what, on paper, is the least interesting role into the musical’s only sympathetic character. A real find.