The Light in the Piazza

Out of town post #2

Kaffe Fassett & Brandon Mably were the reason I went to Niagara-on-the-Lake, but  once there I jumped at the chance to see the show I was most curious about at this year’s Shaw Festival, namely The Light in the Piazza, a recent musical (2005) with music & lyrics by Adam Guettel & book by Craig Lucas.  If I’d seen it before (that is, another staging) I’d be better able to separate the achievements of this cast from those of the original creators of the work.

The entry in IDBD for the play suggests that this has been re-orchestrated, to give us a chamber-music feel reducing the scale & feel of the original to match the intimacy of the Court House Theatre.  While I see no extra credits for re-orchestration, when I listen to this youtube clip of Guettel’s overture I hear something comparable to what IDBD lists, not a quintet as we saw at Shaw (piano, violin, cello, bass, harp plus asking players to play other instruments occasionally), but a bigger ensemble.

I find myself asking questions throughout, trying to figure out what’s original (such as that reduced orchestration) and what to make of it all.

The first thing I’m wondering about is just how difficult this musical is for the cast.  The music is very tonal, very tuneful, but sometimes complicated.  I am wishing I could see the score; I’ll have to go get one to satisfy myself.  The cast do amazing work, supported by the quintet behind them on the stage, allowing scope for subtleties one couldn’t have with a big orchestra (although in the end, that’s an opening they’ve created that isn’t used…or so it seems).  I’m particular impressed by Jacqueline Thair as Clara Johnson, who is at the centre of the show.

There are questions of tone I am asking myself, perhaps playing devil’s advocate and recalling the film Light in the Piazza.  IMDB confirms what I thought I remembered: the absence of the definite article in the film’s name.  That opens a tiny window of additional ambiguity on the title, additional possible meanings.  I find I am a bit uncomfortable when I hear a song with the phrase (that is “Light in the Piazza”), and even more surprised when wham, another song at the end also uses it.  The film was so delicate & understated.

And on top of everything else, there’s the challenge posed by the adaptation from film to musical theatre, in the usual reduction in words.  It usually takes longer to get through a sung page of text than its spoken equivalent.  This means that when you try to tell the same story in a musical, something has to give. Either you leave something out of the adaptation, or you make it longer.

By now you can probably tell I don’t sound as enraptured as I should sound.  People spoke of this show with such respect I could have been visiting a shrine rather than a production of a musical.  I wanted to love it, I really did.  I liked it rather than loved it, impressed by it and by most of the performances.

I wasn’t sure at first whether my quibble was with the original or with the Shaw Festival production.  But I do notice that in the samples I’ve heard online from the cast album that there seems to be a subtlety to the original that isn’t being honoured in what I saw at Shaw.  There’s a degree of schtick, of edge to some of the numbers.  I’d heard from friends that this was a musical of great delicacy, that there’s so little to it that it’s a bit like a soap bubble.  I found myself delighted at the idea, particularly considering the work’s title and subject matter.  But there are a number of places where the cast seem to be doing the conventional thing, making more of the number than is really there.  They lost me on my favourite number: “Aiutami”.  Listen to the way it’s done on this original performance.   In Shaw’s production it becomes an overdone burlesque, with facial contortions that take away any of the multiple meanings.   Nope, this is “funny” they tell us. I wish they could have toned it down in the staging so that we could have preserved the multiple meanings (horror and silliness, pain and comedy).  It seems especially overdone considering how small this performing space is, a tiny theatre where you’d expect something more nuanced and intimate, which maybe was the reason for the smaller orchestration, the opening I alluded to above that’s not used. I saw facial expressions bigger than what i saw a few days ago at the Four Seasons Centre for La Boheme, playing not to 500 but 1,900 people.  Oh well.

I respect the fact that actors like to get a laugh.  But in several places that impulse to milk  the obvious laugh erases the delicacy that is at the heart of this piece.  The gossamer spun sugar of the writing is not well-served by performances that are arch and overdone.

I’m glad  I saw it though.

I am reminded of “9”, that through-composed musical that dazzled yet was in some ways a self-infatuated tour de force.  I saw it on Broadway, loved the film.  I think the film is better than was acknowledged, just as the original play was not as good as was claimed.  In a room full of admirers –especially actors & performers come to see it a second or third time—perhaps subtlety is always the first casualty.

There was so much brilliance, though, in this production.  I’m sorry if I sound ungrateful.  I am especially in awe of Guettel & Lucas. And Thair was amazing.

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4 Responses to The Light in the Piazza

  1. Kathy says:

    I saw this twice at Lincoln Center and loved it. Then I saw a second production in Winston-Salem NC. Loved that too. Elizabeth Spenser – or is that her name? the author of the book it was based on was there and I met her at a lunch. The Lincoln Center production was shown on tv, and I have a dvd of it, if you’d like a copy. Just send me your address. Maybe you won’t like it, but I’d love you to give it a chance.

    • barczablog says:

      Kathy, thanks for your kindness. Forgive me if i seemed to be 100% down on the work. I believe the real issue is the production, indeed, production possibly + lateness in the run. I see subtleties in the text betrayed by the performance.

  2. Paul Padillo says:

    Like Kathy, I saw it at Lincoln Center and was surprised at how much I liked it and how completely moved I was. This is particularly notable because I had NOT liked it when I first heard the score on the original cast album. The score worked far better in conjunction with the stage than through only my speakers. Hope you get to see a good production – it’s a splendid night at the theatre – or should be!

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