Romantics beware: "The Light in the Piazza" may seem like a picture postcard of amour with its lovely American ingenue and handsome Italian bachelor falling head over heels amid the sensual backdrop of Florence. But all is not as it appears in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 short novel, which provides some ominous Henry James cloud cover on what from afar could be mistaken for a sweet, sun-dappled love story.
A popular success that won six Tonys despite receiving mixed reviews, "The Light in the Piazza" has a majestic poise that's hard not to appreciate in an era when the Broadway musical has assumed the slouch of a pouty, overgrown adolescent with headphones blaring yesterday's Top 40 hits.
This recast version of director Bartlett Sher's Lincoln Center production, which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre as part of the show's national tour, reveals why audiences have been more easily seduced than the critics. Imperfect as "The Light in the Piazza" may be, it has a cumulative power that can bowl over anyone not too busy poking at its flaws. And who would want to do that in the company of Guettel's ravishing operatic score?
Lucas treats Spencer's tale (best known from the 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland) with enormous respect, though he meditates more deeply on the theme of love and shifts emphasis here and there to emotionally heighten the underlying poetic truth.
Margaret (Christine Andreas), a well-to-do Southern woman, travels to Florence with her beautiful 26-year-old daughter, Clara (Elena Shaddow), whose childlike sweetness can't be chalked up entirely to her sheltered upbringing.
As a young girl, Clara was kicked in the head by a pony, and the traumatic injury to her brain stunted her development. Physically, she may look like she's of marriageable age, but mentally she's still more or less a kid.
Best not to get too caught up in the exact nature of Clara's mental condition or wonder how it is that she can pick up Italian faster than her mother. Lucas not only introduces this information later than Spencer but lends it more ambiguity, drawing out the idea that Margaret's overprotective nature might be part of the problem. Tied to this is the still soignee matriarch's fading relationship to her husband, Roy (Brian Sutherland), a tobacco industrialist too caught up in work to take a vacation with his family. An injury isn't reduced to a metaphor here, but Lucas knows that more than biological facts are at stake.
Fabrizio (David Burnham), a 20-year-old clerk at his family's clothing store smack in the middle of Florence's tourist traffic, becomes instantly besotted with Clara. Like Romeo with Juliet, he appreciates her looks and confuses her difference (foreignness, in this case) with exotic mystery. A language barrier keeps her disability from becoming too noticeable, and what Latin lover-in-training would care if Clara isn't the most logical of thinkers when she can illuminate a room with her smile?
OK, enough courtship. When's the wedding?
Passionate to a fault, the Italians don't come off as the sharpest knives in the drawer. Indeed, the libretto (following the novel) indulges in a fair amount of stereotyping, which the musical's supporting cast overplays. But like James, Spencer understood that American innocence can be every bit as morally dubious as European sophistication, and a melodrama of black and white is avoided by the grayness of both sides.
Lucas expounds on Margaret's desire to see her daughter experience love in all its vertiginous risks and blissful rewards. In her middle-aged loneliness (delicately captured by Andreas), she first obstructs the couple's union then fights for it when Fabrizio's father unexpectedly objects.
The New York production was a dream to look at it. Sher's design team created a series of living Tuscan frescoes, thanks to the ingenious simplicity of Michael Yeargan's sets, the period panache of Catherine Zuber's 1950s costumes and the metaphoric subtlety of Christopher Akerlind's lighting.
Somehow the prettiness has been diminished at the Ahmanson. But if the visual palette has coarsened, the drama has grown noticeably sharper.
Clara's character is challenging to pull off. Her impairment must register as believable, but not in such a way that it turns the plot into a sick joke. Shaddow finds the balance that was missing at Lincoln Center, and her light soprano delights.
Another clarifying improvement comes via Burnham's Fabrizio, whose flamboyant youthfulness helps explain his impetuosity. He's like a recently graduated high school kid having the eureka moment of sexual chemistry. No wonder he never stops to ask himself any adult questions. When he launches into a ballad, you can almost see the hormones raging.