The Light in the Piazza is a story of relationships. Relationships of lovers, of mother and daughter, of family, and of history. This show is not for the casual theatre-goer, who only goes to a single big musical in any given year. This is for those of us who love grand orchestrations, who delight in our artists being given room to explore their talents, and who live to see a book and score truly soar.
Based on the Elizabeth Spencer novella, The Light in the Piazza opened on Broadway in 2005 to much critical acclaim, including six Tony Awards and five Drama Desk Awards. Melbourne’s Life Like Company is continuing their tradition of bringing rarely staged productions to our theatres with The Light in the Piazza.
Set in the 1950s, Margaret Johnson (Chelsea Plumley) and her daughter Clara Johnson (Genevieve Kingsford) have travelled to Florence. While exploring the historic sites, Clara’s hat blows off her head and lands in the hands of handsome Fabrizio Naccarelli (Jonathan Hickey). Their whirlwind romance results in the Johnsons meeting the Naccarellis – mother and father Signor and Signora Naccarelli (Anton Berezin, Johanna Allen), brother Giuseppe (Josh Piterman) and his wife Franca (Madison Green). The barrier of different languages and the resulting loss in translation creates a beautiful plot tool. Meanwhile, Margaret’s rocky marriage to Roy (Jeremy Stanford) is put under even more pressure through long-term differences and distance. Rounding out the cast is Colin Dean as the Priest, and Ashleigh Hauschild and Tobias Madden as ensemble.
Fabrizio’s first declaration of love in “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” is magnificent, so much so, the applause had to be cut off by the next line after waiting a substantial time. It’s a big song and Hickey does it absolute justice. While the entire cast is sublime, Chelsea Plumley carries the show. Plumley’s Margaret Johnson is a deeply concerned mother, torn between trying to protect her daughter from any of life’s harm and letting her be happy. She goes through a difficult yet believable struggle slowly releasing her daughter to a man, accepting that she can no longer protect her daughter from everything. Her performance is warm and moving, and her voice is rich and truly stunning.
It’s easy to see why Genevieve Kingsford is one of 2016’s Rob Guest Endowment finalists. She is commanding and earnest as Clara, a girl beginning to experience freedom and her delicate first love.
Johanna Allen nails the comic factor of “Aiutami” and is a welcome change of mood for the beginning of Act Two. While it is disappointing the show doesn’t allow all the cast more individual chances to showcase their voices, this cast has an exceptional musicality to it, which simply could not have been achieved without such wondrous voices.
This is a Romeo and Juliet love story. It’s love at first sight. It’s naïve love in its purest form: passionate, immediate, flippant. Clara’s disability allows The Light in the Piazza to explore the theme of acceptance and that everyone is deserving of love.
Lead by musical director Vanessa Scammell, the orchestra is phenomenal. It’s wondrous to listen to an orchestra allowing for the harp to shine at times. Scammell’s experienced touch allows this score the room to become all that it can within its limits. This score is majestic and delightful.
With the initial stage setting, it allows the audience to prepare for a simplistic set, dominated by pieces and lighting working together to create definitive scene changes. The usage of oil paintings flying in and out at different heights allows for intimate or expansive sets. Tom Willis’ work on sets and lighting came together in an expressive and impressive way.
Kim Bishop’s costumes are positively stunning, particularly those for Margaret Johnson. They reflect the era and class magnificently, allowing for bright colours and glorious designs of the dresses specifically. Margaret in particular went through many noticeable costume changes, all visually delectable and gorgeous. The direction and choreography of the piece are seamless, allowing for a well integrated delivery.
The Light in the Piazza is a shining gem for theatre lovers. Usually there is some sort of highlight of a show, but the well-roundedness of every aspect is a testament to a creative team who know theatre intricately. It is a truly magnificent production, well-balanced and touching.
The Light in the Piazza is on at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre until 6 November 2016.
Photo credit: Ben Fon