On June 15th 2006, Beverly Sills welcomed the television audience to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre for a live performance of The Light in the Piazza. Yes, I was busy that night in June 2006, unaware that I should have been watching. A few weeks ago I saw and reviewed a production of Adam Guettel’s musical here in Canada, posing that classic question: are the weaknesses because of the text or the production?
It’s not often that such questions can be answered so conclusively. Wow.
A kind friend, seeking to answer my question made the performance available for my viewing. Too bad this magical performance hasn’t yet been offered as a DVD, but perhaps that omission will be corrected someday.
It’s counter-intuitive. One would not expect that a production in a larger space employing a larger band would be subtler. But when you think about it, that’s precisely what orchestras offer in place of chamber music, provided that the conductor keeps them under a tight rein. If I can hear the separate parts in a string quartet as though they were soloists, that grabs my attention in a way that blended strings will not.
They –the local production that I reviewed—lost me early. The Light in the Piazza has a magical premise for a musical. We watch & hear miscommunications all night. When the lead steps on stage as a young Italian, singing in Italian, and supposedly unable to understand the sweet American girl visiting Florence, if we don’t believe his accent, the whole evening is shot. Sorry folks, I go to opera a lot. I see professionals, mostly Canadians & Americans, who manage to sing Italian phonetically. It’s just not good enough to hire a handsome young man for his good looks if he can’t make me believe he’s Italian.
In contrast, almost everyone in that American production was so easy to believe that I felt like a foreigner in Florence: as I should. I shouldn’t be sitting there thinking “he’s a good singer whose accent is bad”.
The one singer whose Italian accent was merely passable, rather than fluent, must deliver the funniest lines of the entire night, namely Patti Cohenour as Signora Naccarelli. And wow she nails those lines stopping the show when, in the middle of “Aiutami”, the hysterical number in Italian, is interrupted by her deadpan translation. Fabrizio, the young man on the verge of heartbreak, should be hysterical. The rest of them should be much drier and more restrained in comparison, that this number is first and foremost about him. Unfortunately that’s not how the local production did it but wow, listen to this one. Cohenour manages to be upset and detached and sexy all at once. Amazing.
It’s a dream cast in a dream production. The subtlety of their reading is easier to see when you’ve been to another production. Victoria Clark’s vulnerable reading of Margaret Johnson, alongside the understated reading of Chris Sarandon as Signor Naccarelli –including a stunning kiss—makes so much sense. Katie Rose Clarke, the Clara on the broadcast, is especially compelling dramatically, rather than vocally.
Distance serves this production well, in a bigger theatre. Putting it into a smaller space with a smaller ensemble is risky without a very clear vision.
You can find much of this production available on youtube, but I sincerely hope the broadcast will be made available on DVD, if only for its advocacy on behalf of Guettel (music & lyrics) & Craig Lucas (book).