It's not at all difficult to see why The Light in the Piazza received so many Tony nods. The score is ambitious to the point of being operatic, with sophisticated lyrics that make clever use of broken English and Italian. The characters, sympathetically adapted from the page to the stage by Craig Lucas, are far less cartoonish than those found in a typical Broadway musical. And the Italian settings provide designers with the opportunity to work on an epic scale.
I could go on. But won't. Because, for all the good things about this hackneyed romance set amid the sprawling marble majesty of Florence, it's just a hackneyed romance set amid the sprawling marble majesty of Florence. The vaguely gothic plot is weak and repetitive, the cultural stereotypes can be frustrating, and there's a real risk of accidental overpraising.
If lovestruck audiences rise from their seats and applaud at the end of the show, it's probably because of Carla McDonald's humane and virtuosic performance as Margaret Johnson, a willful Southern mother coming to grips with past failures, a passionless marriage, and her beautiful but mentally challenged daughter's budding sexuality. Her mastery of this role is the one thing in this badly miscast and ultimately disappointing production that can't be overstated. McDonald, an award-winning musical actress who's also known for her soulful solo performances with the singing group the Bouffants, is at her best here — and at times it seems as if she's all alone.
I'm not entirely immune to sappy romantic notions, especially when Italy is involved. When I think about the breathtakingly scenic train ride from Florence to Rome, it's almost like I'm there again, feeling both envious and sorry for the natives. No one born and raised in such a place can possibly experience it like a first-timer, and so it's easy to forgive writers who, inspired by all the fabulous fountains, pen preposterous tales of love at first sight. The dreckiest dreck is not only possible but likely in a place like Florence. And yet The Light in the Piazza remains artificial, the victim of its own conceits.
Would the mother of a normal child feverishly facilitate her daughter's marriage to a man from another country whom she's just met and with whom she's never properly conversed due to the language barrier? How about the mother of a mentally challenged daughter? That's the question that may strain an audience's belief.
Clara Johnson, erratically played by a wild-eyed Emily Pettet, isn't your typical otherworldly ingénue. Her simpleness and emotional immaturity are the result of a kick in the head she took from a pony when she was 12 — a kick the doctors said she'd never fully recover from. It's difficult to understand why her flashing, crazy eyes don't immediately strike terror in the heart of young Fabrizio Nacarelli, balletically overacted by Jesus Manuel Pacheco, who was far more grounded as a finger-snapping thug in Theatre Memphis' recent production of West Side Story.
Kent Fleshman, a wonderful comic actor with a booming baritone, has either been badly cast or horribly misdirected as Fabrizio's father. Although he sings the part well enough, his broad, sometimes inappropriately comic characterization of a middle-class Italian shop owner calls to mind Fleshman's past triumphs in camp classics like Little Shop of Horrors, Zombie Prom, and Bat Boy.
Greg Mitchell's set, which appears to have been inspired by the original New York production, captures the surface of Florence but lacks the color, quirk, and majesty of a genuinely magical place where the Italian Renaissance exploded. The oversized nude statues, columns, and arches also find themselves at cross-purposes with director Gary John LaRosa's uninspired staging.
Seriously, how many times can the characters simply turn toward the audience and sing as though they were in a voice recital? You'd be surprised.
Speaking of surprised, someone should surprise Ron Gephart with an award for doing such a splendid job in thankless role after thankless role. In this case, the tireless character actor takes on boring old Mr. Johnson, who, thanks to Gephart's subtle, honest performance, often comes off as the only sane voice on stage.