Like the glossy 1962 movie soap opera that inspired it, the 2005 musical version of “The Light in the Piazza” can be a bit on the overblown side.
Adam Guettel (the grandson of famed composer Richard Rodgers, no less) won a Tony for his music and lyrics, but more than a few of the songs are scored and performed in the glorified style of an operatic aria — not exactly your typical Broadway show tunes with a hummable melody or catchy lyrics.
In the current Theatrical Outfit version, directed by former Georgia Shakespeare artistic director Richard Garner, many of those numbers are handled with polish and skill by Christy Baggett and Devon Hales in the central roles of Margaret and Clara Johnson, a sensible Southern mother and her nubile daughter, vacationing in Italy circa 1953.
Somehow, though, the classical quality of the singing doesn’t always seem to fit or suit their simpler characters.
It’s well into the first act before Baggett finally gets to truly stop the show with her sensational, naturalistic solo on “Dividing the Day.” Not surprisingly, the show’s musical highlights also include a couple of other relaxed, traditional numbers: Tim Quartier’s ballad “Love to Me,” playing the eligible Italian bachelor who romances Clara; and “Let’s Walk,” Baggett’s breezy duet with Michael Strauss (excellent as the young man’s father).
Musical director Alli Lingenfelter’s live seven-piece band acquits itself admirably with all Guettel’s less complicated material, if never sounding quite as lush as it should with his more ornamental flourishes. On opening night, at least, there were periodic pitch problems with a few of those operatic numbers (either as sung or as accompanied).
The plot (as scripted by Craig Lucas) thickens melodramatically. Clara’s suitor soon proposes, rattling skeletons in the family closet about the girl’s emotional and psychological condition that aren’t very fully or deeply substantiated (whether as written, directed or acted).
A similarly cloudy question eventually arises about Margaret: Is she motivated by only her daughter’s interests and happiness, or willing to pawn her off to any family willing to take a bribe? There’s no telling, really.
Garner’s staging skimps on capturing a lot in the way of Italian flavor or atmosphere, relying on Rob Dillard’s video projections, and effectively reducing the splendor of Florence to a miniature “skyline” cutout at the back of Kat Conley’s set. The blocking occasionally is awkward, too. Margaret’s reaction to one of Clara’s big revelations is obscured from view to half of the audience, her reaction to a second bombshell obscured from the other half.
While the Outfit’s “Piazza” has its moments, they don’t add up to as much as you might hope.
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