We gave it a B
After opening on Broadway last year, The Light in the Piazza picked up a reputation as a musical to admire but not necessarily adore. (That dichotomy was evident at the 2005 Tonys, where it picked up six awards, more than any show, including Best Score?but not Best Musical, which went to a show that inspired less profound mixed feelings, Spamalot.) Its major virtues and less-than-wholly satisfying elements have all been transferred more or less intact to a worthy road production that’s currently settled in at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre. To really love this show — and, befitting a show that celebrates flowering, impetuous romance, it does have its lovers — you probably have to fall into a unique cross-section of the theatergoing population. On the one hand, its elegant, unpatronizing, and tricky score has a serious appeal for musical sophisticates who like pondering the fine points of melody and counterpoint as they (try to) hum. On the other hand, to buy into the show’s romanticism, you kind of have to just go with it and stop thinking about the ethical dilemmas that the plot sets up and then almost abandons. If you can manage that balancing act, you might be among the significant minority who find this Light heavenly.
Slight first-act spoiler ahead: As per the Elizabeth Spencer novella on which it’s based (you might also recall the 1962 movie with Olivia de Havilland), an American mom and daughter are on vacation in Florence, Italy, when a handsome suitor woos the younger woman. The complicating factor is that the daughter is emotionally stunted as the result of a childhood accident — something that the young man and his family don’t pick up on amid the rush to the altar. Should mom come clean, or hope that the peculiarities of translation keep her would-be in-laws from ever noticing the immaturity of the new addition to their family? It’s the kind of setup that you keep thinking can’t possibly lead to a satisfying resolution ? and, sure enough, it doesn’t. But if this ambiguous plot is perhaps better suited for an installment of the ”Ethicist” column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine than a musical, there are great pleasures to be had along the way to its inevitably frustrating wrapup. Chief among them is Christine Andreas’ performance as the mother who, foolishly or not, gradually considers letting her daughter be a proxy for her own thwarted romanticism. When Andreas lights a cigarette and sings about her own failed marriage in ”Dividing Day,” you see the scold revealed as a former siren, and you wish the whole show were about her. Which, in a way, it is — but, naggingly, there are still those other ”Charly Becomes a Girl and Goes to Italy” plot turns to contend with. (Tickets — in L.A through Dec. 10 — from the Center Theatre Group website or 213-628-2772. For other cities, dates, and tickets, see The Light in the Piazza website.)