The Light in the Piazza
Despite the two previous Chicago appearances of Guettel and Lucas’s musical—its 2004 pre-Broadway run at the Goodman and a 2007 touring stop at the Auditorium, after it took home six Tonys—I arrived at Marriott’s Piazza almost entirely fresh. I knew a bit about the story, adapted from Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, and had heard plenty of raves about Guettel’s score, but hadn’t seen or heard anything outside of the brief performance on the 2005 Tony Awards broadcast.
Given that limited knowledge, it’s tough to know whether to place the blame for Marriott’s schizophrenic-seeming production with the creators or with director Leonardo. Spencer’s story, set in 1953, has a proper Southern mother (Ernster) traveling abroad with her childlike adult daughter (Smart), who falls in love with a romantic young Florentine (Quinlan).
The production’s emphasis on Lucas’s pedestrian humor doesn’t jibe with Guettel’s expressive score. The book seems to revel in midcentury clichés of Americans abroad, and Leonardo goes for the xenophobic gusto and easy laughs at every chance. But the sweeping, operatic music is one of the most ambitious scores to hit the mainstream in the last two decades. Music director Ryan T. Nelson and his cast and orchestra do well by it (despite the inorganic amplification). While the 17-member cast handles the difficult music admirably, Quinlan is the breakout—there’s no language barrier when he kills with the all-Italian “Il Mondo Era Vuoto.”