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Review: The Light in the Piazza (Southbank Centre)

Dove Cameron and Renée Fleming star in the musical's London premiere

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Marian McLaughlin, Rob Houchen and Dove Cameron in The Light in the Piazza

It's taken more than 15 years for this musical to make its way from Broadway to its London premiere and for most of that time its fans have been acclaiming it as a sensation. This production – starring the lustrous Renée Fleming, who let's be honest, could sing a shopping list and make it sound like the song of the angels – makes a strong case for it.

But coming to it for the first time, the light it casts felt fitful as the English sun rather than the strong steady beam of the Italian sky over Florence, where it is set. It is here in the 1950s that a wealthy American Margaret (Fleming) brings her daughter Clara (Disney TV and film star Dove Cameron) for an eye-opening "vacation" – and it is here that Clara, a sweet-hearted innocent, falls in love with Fabrizio, a gentle Italian boy from a good (and chaotically colourful) family.

Based on a novella from 1960 by Elizabeth Spencer, the show was created in 2004 with a lushly Italianate score (and lyrics) by Adam Guettel, who is the grandson of Richard Rogers and a book by Craig Lucas. It has two notable characteristics – a large amount of the score is sung in Italian or broken English (which is surprising but effective) and an immense variety of tone from operatic recitative, to swooningly romantic love songs with great chromatic scales in the orchestra, to light pop and jazzy numbers.

This range of tone is touted by its admirers as a strength, but in performance it also feels like a weakness; apart from the richness of the strings (beautifully played and under the exceptional control of Kimberly Grigsby, the original music director) there is no overall style holding it all together.

In this production, directed with his usual verve by Daniel Evans, the contrasts are made sharper by deliberately eclectic casting encompassing the operatic Fleming and Marie McLaughlin as Fabrizio's mother (who leads one striking operatic quintet of heartbreak and lament) to the sharper, poppier tones of Cameron whose voice is efficient rather than beautiful, and the light musical style of Alex Jennings, bringing class and charm to the role of Fabrizio's tolerant and twinkly father.

Nor is the Royal Festival Hall an ideal venue for this sort of thing. The staging on Robert Jones' curved ruined wall of a set is cramped by the need to seat the orchestra, though Mark Henderson's shifting lighting perfectly sets the Italian mood. And the acoustics are variable; in the first act, in particular, it was sometimes hard to hear, even though (or perhaps because) I was sitting close to the action.

But for all that, there is much to enjoy. Cameron, 23, who has 23 million Instagram followers, isn't the most expressive actress but she has a lovely presence and a real sweetness playing a character that we know is somehow damaged. Rob Houchen, someone who is making a name for himself in musicals, has a sensational impact as her beau, delivering his songs with panache and feeling. The scene between them, when they think their dream of love is going to falter – "Love to Me" – is one of the loveliest of the night.

The best of the rest tends to fall to Fleming. You expect her to sing with staggering purity, but she also copes well with a considerable script and builds up the character of a woman who is herself full of longing and living her dreams through her daughter. She carries the psychological burden of a slim story. When she is allowed to fly – in the beautiful Dividing Day full of tense harmonies or the staggering final Fable – the musical soars with her, achieving unusual resonance and richness. For the rest of the time, it remains a fascinating curiosity, full of good things, but somehow not quite as great as the sum of its parts.

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