The Light in the Piazza has taken a long time to shine on a British stage. Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s musical opened on Broadway in 2005, running for more than 500 performances and picking up six Tony Awards, but it never made a transatlantic transfer. Daniel Evans’ fresh production, the first from new company Scenario Two, seeks to rectify that wrong.
It runs at the Royal Festival Hall until early July and has two American stars in tow – soprano singer Renee Fleming and Disney starlet Dove Cameron, both making their London debuts. Alongside them are British stage stalwart Alex Jennings, TV regular Malcolm Sinclair and rising star Rob Houchen.
Lucas’ book is based on a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, and tells of a wealthy American woman and her disabled daughter spending a summer together in Italy. Guettel’s neo-romantic music, which won the Tony Award for best original score, is performed by the 40-strong Opera North orchestra.
But will this American award winner achieve acclaim on its long-awaited London premiere? Will Fleming and Cameron dazzle on their UK debuts? Does Evans’ staging sit well on the Southbank?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
Lucas has written the book for a few successful musicals, An American in Paris and Amélie among them. His story here follows Margaret and Clara, mother and disabled daughter, as they find Roman romance on holiday in Italy.
The plot, most critics concur, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s “wafer-thin” according to Rupert Christiansen (Telegraph, ★★★), only “fitfully successful” according to Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★★), and “advances in fits and starts” according to Clive Davis (Times, ★★).
“Lucas’ book doesn’t quite know what to do with the moral quandaries it sets up,” observes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★), while Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★) says that even though it can be “surprisingly acute” about Clara’s disability, this gets “swallowed up in the comic dreck”.
“Lucas’ book doesn’t make much room for the more uncomfortable realities of her situation,” assesses Alice Saville (TimeOut, ★★), and Rachel Jeal (Guardian, ★★★) agrees. “There’s a lot of light in this piazza, but not a corresponding amount of shade,” she writes.
“At heart it’s a feel-good musical about the supremacy of True Love,” Jeal adds. “Yet there are other elements, the most important being the fact that Clara’s radiant innocence is the result of childhood brain damage. Should she be treated as an independent woman? Before we can get too tied up in that question, we’re always back to True Love.”
This show is mostly about the score, though. Adam Guettel is the grandson of another musical writer – Richard Rodgers. Does he possess the same magic touch as his Carousel-composing grandfather?
The score is “an unusual hybrid of light opera and Broadway musical”, according to Hitchings, and it’s a mixture that divides the critics. Some find it overwhelming, others long for a tune to tap their feet too.
“It’s hard to define his style,” says Bano. “It’s strange and restive, with luscious strings like a Morricone film score. Keys never settle, and melodies dart in every direction. These aren’t tunes you’ll be humming out of the door, but the cumulative effect is one of sumptuousness and great romance.”
For Christiansen, that’s a disappointment. “While sumptuous melodies are promised, they never quite materialise,” he writes, while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) writes that the “range of tone is touted by its admirers as a strength, but in performance it also feels like a weakness”.
“Apart from the richness of the strings (beautifully played and under the exceptional control of Kimberly Grigsby, the original musical director) there is no overall style holding it together,” she concludes, as Davis observes that “tastefully crafted” notes are no substitute for “genuine emotion”.
Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★★), on the other hand, adores it. “You may not go in knowing all the tunes, but this utterly envelops you in a gorgeous wall of yearning melody that’s one of the great Broadway scores of the century so far, right up there with Next to Normal and Hamilton,” he writes.
It is “a score of swelling, surging musical joy, full of meltingly lovely arias, laments and a sense of overwhelming feeling”, he adds. “I don’t think that there’s a more ravishing sound to be heard in all of London right now.”
This show is the inaugural production from Scenario Two, a new musical-focussed company launched by ex-ENO artistic director John Berry and producer Anthony Lilley. They’ve assembled a crack team – Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Daniel Evans, plus Fleming and Cameron from across the pond.
Evans’ direction is “graceful”, “elegant” and “romantic” according to Bano, and “sleek” according to Davis, but more than one critic points out that this is a tough space to fill. The Royal Festival Hall is not “an ideal venue” with its “variable” acoustics, says Crompton, while Bano observes that “the vastness of the Royal Festival Hall saps some of the show’s vitality and energy”.
Fleming, though is fantastic as mother Margaret. “Her solos are sublime and her elegance palpable,” writes Bano, while Shenton calls her voice “utterly thrilling” and Davis describes it as “sumptuous”.
“You expect her to sing with staggering purity, but she also copes well with a considerable script and builds up the character of a woman who is herself full of longing and living her dreams through her daughter,” remarks Crompton.
Cameron, meanwhile, “captures Clara’s mix of swooning innocence and defiance” according to Hitchings and has “a vocal radiance of her own to match her beautiful physical presence” according to Shenton, but her performance has “a hint of Disney princess to it” according to Saville.
It’s middling. No critic falls head over heels in love with it, apart from Mark Shenton, who confesses that he had adored it “with all my heart since I first saw its Broadway premiere in 2005”. But no one hates it either. Three stars seems to be the consensus.
Lucas’ book is fairly flimsy, and Guettel’s score certainly splits opinion with its unusual mix of Italianate arias and musical melodies. Evans’ production is pretty, but performs poorly in the Royal Festival Hall’s enormous auditorium, while a fantastic Fleming was well worth the air fare.
The Light In The Piazza doesn’t sparkle, then, but it hasn’t entirely gone dark either.