In musical theater, there is nothing new under the sun. In fact, some of the most recent and most successful musicals (“The Producers,” “Spamalot”) have become so by poking fun at the convention and formulaic quality of the modern musical. The charming new production “The Light in the Piazza” certainly earns points for a serious attempt at breaking with convention and, if anything, it might be guilty of trying to do too much.
“The Light in the Piazza,” which runs through Feb. 11 at the Fox Theatre, begins as a rather simple story. Margaret Johnson (Christine Andreas) and her daughter Clara (Leslie Henstock) are Americans traveling in Italy in 1953. While in Florence, Clara, bubbling with an exuberant innocence, chances to meet Fabrizio Naccarelli (David Burnham), a handsome Italian boy.
But just when all the pieces are in place for a standard “young love abroad” story, it becomes clear that there is something not quite right about Clara and Margaret goes to great lengths to keep her daughter away from this strapping, young Italian.
But Fabrizio is not easily deterred and he continues to track them down all over the streets of Florence. He even enlists his father, Signor Naccarelli (David Ledingham), to distract Margaret so he and Clara can be alone together.
In another pleasant break from convention, the play avoids having everyone in Italy inexplicably speaking English. Apparently, people in foreign countries prefer to speak in their native language. Who knew? Throughout the show, Fabrizio’s English is choppy at best, and entire scenes and musical numbers featuring the Naccarelli clan are performed in Italian. But fear not, xenophobes, for even without subtitles it is very clear what is going on with the mood and general point coming across very easily. The Italian effectively adds quite a bit of depth and realism to the story.
Running concurrent to Clara and Fabrizio’s story of blossoming love, we are also shown some troubled romances, mostly between Margaret and her husband back in the United States, Roy (John Procaccino), who is even more strongly opposed to Clara’s relationship; and a little more comedically, the tempestuous marriage of Fabrizio’s brother Giuseppe (Jonathan Hammond) and his wife Franca (Wendi Bergamini).
All the romantic intrigue aside, this still is a musical and it is in this respect where “The Light in the Piazza” becomes a bit uneven. The songs are all pleasant and solid, although not particularly memorable. And vocally the cast was pretty average with Burnham being the only standout. But this was forgivable as the emphasis of this production was clearly on the acting and in that aspect, the cast was more than up for the task.
The sets and the staging are wonderful as the streets of Florence almost become a character of their own as they are almost perpetually lit in the soft glow of a late afternoon.
There is much to love about “The Light in the Piazza,” with six Tony Awards under its belt it certainly has a fine pedigree; but instead of embracing us and letting us in, it seems to be constantly pushing the audience away. It takes on perhaps one conflict too many and takes itself very seriously at times, but then the tone will suddenly shift to whimsical at a speed fast enough to give you whiplash. And the nature of Clara’s affliction is hinted at but withheld for so long that the desire to stand up and yell “Get on with it!” might come upon you.
But these blemishes aside, “The Light in the Piazza” is a pleasant and romantic night at the theater, although it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your Italian.
“The Light in the Piazza” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through Feb. 11. For tickets, call MetroTix at (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.