NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – Contemporary musical composer Adam Guettel is coming to the picturesque village of Niagara-on-the-Lake this week for a “conversation,” topics to include his life, career and plans and very likely a barrage of queries on his Tony Award-winning Broadway hit of almost a decade ago, “The Light in the Piazza.”
“Piazza” has just opened in chamber-piece format at The Shaw Festival’s Courthouse Theatre. The intimate surroundings are a perfect place to savor this sweetly sophisticated and bilingual little fairy tale, told with operatic ardor. It’s a tale of young lovers discovering the world and each other with perhaps their supposedly wiser mentors doing the same.
Composer Guettel (his bluegrass-tinged “Floyd Collins” was a Shaw Festival favorite some seasons back), has jammed this “Piazza” with melodies, mini-arias, snippets, all moving the story of a moment in time in Florence, Italy of Clara and Fabrizio, of kept secrets, a faltering marriage back in the States and culture clash that threatens to tear apart two families.
Clara, a woman/child of 26 who acts much younger because of a childhood accident that left her “emotionally stalled,” and her mother, careful Margaret, are on vacation in Florence. They are agog at the Uffizi Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio, Ghiberti Doors, the sculptures (“There’s a completely naked statue!” giggles Clara), when a Tuscan breeze wafts the girl’s hat across the Piazza della Signoria and into the grasp of Fabrizio, a handsome Florentine lad of 20. When the hat is returned, Fabrizio (and Clara) are immediately smitten; not exactly hit in the eye by a big pizza pie, but amore nevertheless. Mom Margaret is wary. She’s spent her life protecting Clara. “She’s not what she appears,” she keeps telling people.
Things move quickly. Fabrizio arranges a meeting with Margaret, Clara and his parents, and sweeps Clara around the city. “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” he sings, “The world was empty.” They try to express their new feelings with a touching duet, “Say it Somehow.” (“Somehow you can show me, I know that you know me.”) They’re goners.
Margaret phones home. Husband Roy seems disinterested until a possible Clara-Fabrizio wedding is mentioned. It’s clear that this stateside marriage has gone downhill and meanwhile, there are roadblocks to the Florence nuptials. Clara has a meltdown or two, Fabrizio’s dad has his doubts. We’re left thinking that it’ll work out. Margaret – “The Light in the Piazza” is really her play – ponders her own future on the closing “Fable:” “Love’s a fake, love’s a fable … just a painting on a ceiling, just a children’s fairy tale … still you have to look.” Thoughtful.
The score soars and the “book” by Craig Lucas skillfully leaves plenty of room for the music. You won’t take any melodies home though; there’s not a one you will hum later and when word’s fail, Guettel adds many scale hopping “ahhhhhh’s.” Occasionally, it’s too much.
It takes some work to comprehend every lyric. Guettel is a fan of Stephen Sondheim so words are plentiful and a few times Paul Sportelli’s small but able orchestra overpowers. Infrequently, thankfully.
Jay Turvey directs. Large set pieces, gratuitously moved about, are by Michael Gianfrancesco.
You’ll love the cast, both vocally and in their roles. Patti Jamieson’s Margaret is wonderfully complete; she’s a joy. Jacqueline Thair and Jeff Irving are Clara and Fabrizio and they are believable and refreshing. Julain Molnar, Kelly Wong and Shawn Wright are excellent, as are Stratford imports Juan Chioran and Kaylee Harwood.
Guettel loves to “write for character and tell stories and express love through music.” “The Light in the Piazza” is a superb example of his work.
“Light in the Piazza”: 3 and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Shaw Festival’s Courthouse
Through Oct. 13
Info: (800) 511-7429, www.shawfest.com