Like Clara, the deceptively innocent ingénue who is "not quite what she seems," so too is The Light in the Piazza not quite what we've come to expect from touring shows that visit the Fox Theatre. In contrast to such recent splashy, brassy Broadway hits as Spamalot, The Producers and Wicked, the exquisitely rendered Piazza comes across as the anti-musical. There's no choreography (instead we get "musical staging"), no big chorus. It's actually a surprise to read in the program that there are eighteen actors onstage; the cast size feels smaller. Stripped of all excess, this gently ambitious tale sculpts a delicate evening of eloquent understatement.
Based on Elizabeth Spencer's popular 1960 novel of the same name, the sensitive plot concerns a mother and daughter on vacation in Italy. When the guileless Clara enters into an unexpected romance with a passionate young Florentine, her mother becomes protective, then envious. Bartlett Sher has directed the piece as if it is a play with music. He gives the actors space in which to breathe. It's rare to hear a Fox audience held rapt by a pause, but it happens here.
This impeccable production is thick with talent. On opening night the demanding, complex role of Clara was performed to seeming perfection by understudy Leslie Henstock. Her portrayal was assured, luminous and textured. She worked in lovely harmony with leading lady Christine Andreas. As a North Carolina mother who has lost the love of her husband and is now battling to save the love of her daughter, Andreas effectively hides the pain of a breaking heart behind the bluff of a steel magnolia. Her haunting torch-song rendition of "Dividing Day," which seeks to recall the moment when the ard or of her marriage began to ebb, is one of the evening's high points and an example of Piazza's quiet power. David Burnham fills the vast Fox stage with appealing passion as Fabrizio, the ardent suitor, and David Leddingham's slick presence as Fabrizio's still-attractive father extends the story's dynamics from a trio to a quartet.
The witty yet layered script was written by the ever-adroit Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss). The music and lyrics are by Adam Guettel. Because he is the grandson of musical theater icon Richard Rodgers, of course we look for (perhaps arbitrary) influences, yet they seem to be here. Piazza's narrative-driven overture reminds one of the storytelling waltz that opens Carousel. Joyfully melodic songs like "Passeggiata" (much of the show is sung and spoken in Italian) recall Rodgers at his most "June is bustin' out all over" ebullient.
But Rodgers rarely wrote lyrics, and here Guettel excels. Regardless of whether he's joking with rhymes (he likens Italy's "naked marble boys" to North Carolina "corduroys") or painting images ("There's a valley beyond the setting sun/Where waters shine and horses run"), the lyrics captivate and then command our attention. The Fox orchestra, conducted by James Lowe and abetted by five traveling musicians, gorgeously rises to the challenge of conveying the score's swelling symphonic luster.
Ultimately, what is it that makes The Light in the Piazza so satisfying? Midway through Act Two, Fabrizio's mother provides a clue when she says, "I can almost hear what everyone is feeling." Piazza is a veritable palette of feelings as revealed through sound and silence. An evening of accumulated simplicities succeeds in touching the heart in unexpected ways.