The first thing you’ll likely notice when arriving at The Light in the Piazza is the full orchestra (Orchestra of Opera North, in fact, led by Kimberly Grigsby) that is left almost fully visible by Robert Jones’ asymmetrical set, a jagged and off-kilter Italian piazza. In some ways, this image encapsulates the strange beast that is Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s musical: nearly-naturalism suddenly cut through with shocks of strange, lyrical wonder. Carefully detailed Tuscan squares with a strings section poking out from behind.
So, on one hand we have a series of quiet, intimate scenes of an American duo—mother Margaret and daughter Clara—visiting post-war Florence depicted with a pointed avoidance of theatrical flourishes: the Italians all speak exclusively Italian when they’re alone and no one magically learns English, there are many scenes where very little seems to happen—or what does happen is so small and subterranean, it requires a skilled hand by both actor and director to coax it subtly out. But then Guettel’s score breaks in, sometimes from nowhere, operatic and strangely dissonant, resisting hummable melodies with a determination that would make Sondheim proud, offering his characters arias that are opaque with lyricism and seem to reject the old musical theatre stricture that one sings only when they’re too full of feeling to speak. The show is complex and strange, almost Shakespearean in its incredulous belief in the impossibly magical power of small, human actions: falling in love, forgiving oneself, seeing someone for who they are.
The bad news is that Daniel Evans’ production at the Southbank Centre, the musical’s London premiere, doesn’t do any of this justice.
The best word I can think of to describe the production is under-rehearsed—like they got accidentally stranded between a full production and a semi-staged concert version, an impression the exposed orchestra admittedly enhances. The actors seem like they’ve all only just met, with no intimacy or ease to be found anywhere, and certainly no romantic or sexual energy—which is somewhat essential to the play’s simple plot, in which Clara and the Florentine Fabrizio fall in love. But the staging is like a first draft: basically fine at best, but more often feeling clumsy or provisional. Both acts clip along at a decent pace, but feel sketched and disconnected—paradoxically, a problem that I think would be solved by slowing down, allowing the scenes to take more time. But Evans betrays his discomfort through speed. The stranger scenes are ripped through as fast as possible, most conspicuously in the opening number of the second act, a chaotic, five-part lament in Italian with fourth-wall-breaking English narration that just sort of sits there, the staging equivalent of a shrug.
However, the two lead actors don’t quite seem up to the task of taking their time. It isn’t Dove Cameron and Renée Fleming’s faults that they’re miscast as Clara and Margaret, but they are unequal to the subtlety that the roles require, to silently fill space or to work out complex thoughts over the course of a densely subtextual song. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Fleming, who needs to be able to command the stage as the story shapes itself around her character’s emotional arc. Lacking this, the role—and thus the structure of the musical as a whole—feels disjointed and inconsistent. Through Cameron’s blunt performance, the musical’s complicated central question—will and should Margaret prevent Clara, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, from pursuing her relationship with Fabrizio—tips from a sticky question of whether Margaret is too mired in her guilt over the trauma to see Clara for who she is, into more potentially ableist territory.
The half-considered feel of the production and the casting of opera and television stars rather than musical theatre actors suggests that the producers thought they could treat this like an old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein show, so robustly structured and well-known by audiences that you can just sort of wind it up, set it onstage, and it ticks along on its own. The Light in the Piazza is not that kind of musical—which is a good thing, if it ever gets a production that understands that.
The Light in the Piazza is on at Southbank Centre until 5th July. More info and tickets here.