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The Light in the Piazza

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 22, 2023

James D. Gish, Anna Zavelson, and Ruthie Ann Miles
Photo by Joan Marcus
Composer/lyricist Adam Guettel is not exactly known for writing hum-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mable melodies, but that doesn't mean he doesn't write beautiful, emotionally gripping musical numbers that, in the right hands, can provide theatregoers with a thoroughly enchanted evening. How fortunate, then, are we to have not one, but two of his works available to us, albeit briefly, with both of them in decidedly right hands. There is the new Days of Wine and Roses at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, running through July 16 and featuring sublime performances by Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara. And, only for a few days (alas!), there is a gorgeous revival of The Light in the Piazza, an Encores! production at New York City Center, featuring a trio of terrific performers in the lead roles on hand to sing the Tony-winning score.

The Light in the Piazza, which originally ran on Broadway in 2005-2006, is a tale made of two intersecting stories (the book is by Craig Lucas). One part is a romantic love story worthy of Romeo and Juliet (or Tony and Maria, if you prefer), though with a far happier conclusion. The other is a story of regret and self-recrimination that finally makes peace with itself.

The two components merge during a trip to Florence, Italy, in the 1950s by an American, Margaret (Ruthie Ann Miles, on a brief leave from the role of the Beggar Woman in the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd)), and her daughter Clara (Anna Zavelson, making an auspicious New York theater debut). Clara is 26 years old but has yet to break free of the watchful eye of her mother owing to a childhood accident that has left her, to a certain if unspecified degree, developmentally disabled. Because the accident happened under her mother's watch, Margaret has been racked with guilt ever since; she also has been mostly ignoring the fact that her own life has been stymied by continuing to live in an unfulfilling marriage. The trip is meant to be a relaxing and refreshing break for both of them.

But there is more to Florence, as both women discover, than tourist sites and art museums. Before you can say "buongiorno" or "buena sera," Clara's heart takes flight the moment she meets a handsome young charmer, Fabrizio (James D. Gish, rounding out the marvelous lead threesome), and it is love at first sight for both of them.

This part of the story, like most tales of romance, has its ups and downs, but it is clear from the start that they are meant for each other and that love will conquer all. The more complex story is that of Margaret's personal struggle (to let go of her daughter and to find her own voice), made somewhat more intriguing in this production by casting two Asian American women in the roles of mother and daughter. You can take it, of course, as color-blind casting, but it can also be seen as adding an additional layer of "foreignness" to Margaret and Clara, caught up in a setting that is both romantic and a little scary. This outsider perspective is further reinforced by the fact that some of the songs and chunks of the dialog are performed without translation in Italian; thus, we are asked to share their feelings of being at least a little lost.

Not to worry, however. There is no missing the meaning as expressed most effectively by the cast (along with some, possibly unnecessary, explanatory asides to the audience). Beautifully directed by Chay Yew, the rest of the cast members include Andréa Burns and Ivan Hernandez as Fabrizio's parents, Rodd Cyrus and Shereen Ahmed as his brother and sister-in-law, and Michael Hayden as Margaret's husband, whom we meet briefly during a couple of long-distance phone calls. The ensemble is particularly effective at providing a sense of a busy Florentine thoroughfare, with nuns and priests, tourists and tour guides, and even bicyclists in great abundance.

More than anything, it is Guettel's captivating music that is so rewarding in this production. Label it operatic or neoclassical or soaringly melodic, Encores! does itself proud in its service to the score. Here we not only have the superb singing voices of the cast members, but the happy reunion of Rob Berman, back as guest music director on hand to conduct the orchestra. It rarely gets any better than this!

The Light in the Piazza
City Center Encores!
Through June 25, 2023
City Center, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: