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The Light in the Piazza at the Royal Festival Hall | Review

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen at a table in The Light in the Piazza credit Dewynters London.
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen at a table in The Light in the Piazza credit Dewynters London.

There are people who prefer their operas sung in Italian rather than English. Then there are people like me who prefer operas sung in Italian because the chances are that there are English surtitles, thus retaining the intonations and verbal emphases of the original language whilst understanding in full precisely what’s going on. The Light in the Piazza is opera-esque when it wants to be but is otherwise very much a musical, and it lacks the English surtitles, but there are mitigating factors at work. The main one is that the central characters, Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming) and her daughter Clara (Dove Johnson) are American tourists in Italy, and while Clara, in particular, picks up the Italian language quickly, being immersed in that culture, there are still some things lost in translation. So, it’s not difficult to identify with the Johnson ladies as they grapple with the local lingo.

Additionally, Signor Naccarelli (Alex Jennings) knows more than enough English to hold his own in a conversation with Margaret, and while his younger son Fabrizio (Rob Houchen) knows only a few stock phrases, his older son Giuseppe (Liam Tamne) and his wife (Celinde Schoenmaker) between them teach the impressionable youngster what they know. Or, to put it another way, don’t be put off by the whole Italian thing. My only caveat in this regard is that I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the Italian accents in this production – my Londoner ears didn’t detect anything out of place, but more knowledgeable people may beg to differ.

The set (Robert Jones) is suitably exquisite, giving the feeling that the Johnsons have arrived at a place that somehow remains timeless even in an era of significant change – and, when required, does justice to the show’s title. The forty-piece Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, sits above the stage, visible to a lesser or greater extent dependent on one’s vantage point in the Royal Festival Hall. Set in the 1960s, the show stands apart in its rather majestic melodies, putting some distance between it and the sort of modern musicals (this one having premiered in 2003) that broadly emulate the sound of chart music. By contemporary standards, the score is delightful.

Some, of course, won’t be measuring it by contemporary standards, what with lyricist and composer Adam Guettel being the grandson of Richard Rodgers – that is, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame. Still, the original Broadway production bagged half a dozen Tony Awards in 2005, and judging by the atmosphere in the Festival Hall before the show started on press night, it’s gained something of a following over the years. Much of the humour in the show, perhaps predictably, arises from misunderstandings between the musical’s two languages.

If it’s a song and dance you’re after, with high tempo musical numbers – well, to be blunt, there are other shows out there to enjoy. I wasn’t exactly humming the tunes in this production on the Tube home. That said, Fleming’s Margaret captures the hopes and fears of a doting mother with a ferocity that can’t fail to be noticed, and both hers and Cameron’s voices glide through the score with palpable assuredness, even when their characters are feeling uncertain about whether they have made the right choices.

Overall, it’s all rather stylish and straightforward, and far more serious than silly. I agreed with Clara when she put forward the notion that something – not quite sure what – is ‘wrong’; her blossoming relationship with Fabrizio wasn’t wholly convincing on stage. And when a local priest guides Clara through the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, the Latin prayers come across as a tad overkill when the audience is already exposed to so much Italian. But in the end, this is an enjoyable and triumphant show.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer, The Light in the Piazza is written by Craig Lucas, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Set in Florence during the summer of 1953, it’s a touching and heart-wrenching love story.

Unapologetically lyrical and romantic, it transports us into the world of Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming) and her daughter Clara (Dove Cameron), as they take in the wonders of Florence. A fateful gust of wind whisks Clara’s hat into the hands of local dreamer Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen) and its love at first sight. However, Clara isn’t quite what she appears and soon they must all confront a secret that’s been kept in the shadows for far too long.

The Light in the Piazza is performed in a specially-designed full theatre staging at the Royal Festival Hall with the 34-piece Orchestra of Opera North. The production will be directed by Daniel Evans, music director is Kimberly Grigsby (who performed the same role on the original Broadway production), set is designed by Robert Jones with Brigitte Reiffenstuel providing costumes. It is produced by John Berry and Anthony Lilley for Scenario Two Ltd.

The Light in the Piazza
Royal Festival hall
Booking to 5th July 2019

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