New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"The Light in the Piazza"
Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center

Once in every five years or thereabouts, a show comes along that blows you away. It explains the reason why we critics keep plugging away, sifting through tons of gravel to hit upon that rare gem. Thus it is with “The Light in the Piazza,” the exquisite show now at the Vivian Beaumont.

“The Light in the Piazza” exemplifies the new genre—the cross-over between Broadway musical and grand opera. Adam Guettel’s gorgeous music carries the delicate upbeat tale to a new level of intensity. The book by Craig Lucas is based on the original novel by Elizabeth Spencer. Granted that that the story calls for a goodly supply of hankies, but it is never sentimentalized in this staged version.

The show is exquisitely mounted. Everything comes together under the direction of Bartlett Sher, with Ted Sperling’s musical direction and Jonathan Butterell’s musical staging. Sets, props, costumes, lighting are all on target. Yes, there are a sizeable number of theatrical people involved in this show’s success, which belies the stark simplicity of the finished product. Not one unnecessary word, moment or frippery trips up this piece.

“The Light in the Piazza,” which unfolds in the Italy of 1953, features a Midwest woman and her daughter, who come to Florence as eager tourists. The daughter, a fragile lovely girl, supposedly has the mind of a ten-year-old child. It was at her tenth birthday party that she was kicked by a pony, and, according to her physicians, would never develop mentally or emotionally beyond that age.

Physically, she has developed into a beautiful young woman. And, in Florence, she falls in love with an Italian boy (scion of an upper-class family), who is equally smitten with her. The mother, fearing for her daughter, tries to fend off their attachment, to no avail. How this story plays itself out is certainly the stuff of grand opera—not to be revealed here.

Along with all other aspects, casting is superb. The cast of 18 (with ten feature players) is headed by Victoria Clark, who gives the performance of a lifetime. Kelli O’Hara, as her daughter, is delectable, ably supported by Matthew Morrison, Mark Harelik, Michael Berresse and others.

This upbeat, heart-rending show will stay with us for a long time—and will hopefully go on to a long life, in other times and places.

-- Irene Backalenick
May 1, 2005

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