The Light in the Piazza
Just gazing at the breathtaking settings of Florence, Italy, notably a portion of the Piazza della Signoria, that designer Michael Yeargan has created for the sublime multi Tony award-winning musical "The Light in the Piazza" are enough to make you swoon with each turn of the revolving stage. But make sure you leave some heavy breathing space for the rapturous melodically modernist score that Adam Guettel has composed for his and book writer Craig Lucas’s marvelous adaptation of the 1958 novella by Mississippi-born Elizabeth Spencer. Guettel’s score is certainly one that would make his grandfather, Richard Rodgers, proud. And Lucas, most famous for his strange and twisted works ("Prelude to a Kiss" and "Reckless"), has empowered Spencer’s sweet story with a libretto flavored with his own style of wit and sophistication.
Rivaling them for our awed attention is Victoria Clark’s poignantly, humorously, and artfully acted and sung performance (Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical), as Margaret Johnson, a devoted Southern mother, who tries to shield her 26-year-old daughter, Clara (Kelli O’Hara), from the attentions of an insistent handsome young Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli (Matthew Morrison).
Overprotective since Clara’s intellectual development was arrested in an accident when she was ten, Margaret finds herself overwhelmed by both the apparently unstoppable romance and the seductive atmosphere of Florence (and Rome) in 1953, where the story takes place. Margaret also serves as the musical’s narrator, a device that helps connect story-line dots that even the collaborators may have felt were too subtle for everyone to grasp without a little help. But even if you never saw the lovely 1961 film with Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, and George Hamilton, you won’t be kept in the dark.
Under the exemplary direction of Bartlett Sher, the emotionally-charged story builds dramatically, as Margaret begins to see that she is failing in her efforts to keep the blinded-by-love Fabrizio and his volatile family from discovering Clara’s problem. Margaret’s decision to finally support what she cannot fight leads to conflicts with her husband, Roy (Beau Gravitte), back in the States, as well as with Fabrizio’s father ((Mark Harelik), mother (Patti Cohenour), brother (Michael Berresse), and his wife (Sarah Uriarte Berry).
If Clark’s performance stands out for its delightful mix of pithy eccentricities and earthy candor, even as she reluctantly succumbs to the affectionate attentions of Fabrizio’s father, it is O’Hara’s effervescent charm that also lights up the stage as brightly as Christopher Akerlind’s radiant lighting. The impressive baritone quality of Morrison’s voice is used to complete his disarming image and the impetuousness of an ardor-consumed young Italian male. The supporting performers, all of whom look as terrific as do the principals in Catherine Zuber’s 1950s fashions, rise to this ecstatic occasion that marks "The Light in the Piazza" as the musical peak of the season.
The Light in the Piazza, through Sunday, September 4, Lincoln Center/Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street. $90 and $65. 212-239-6200.
Hey big spender, there are worse ways to spend those extra c-notes you’ve set aside for entertainment than to see pretty and pert Christina Applegate, the former TV star of "Married with Children," in the title role in "Sweet Charity." You may not be bowled over by her unremarkable singing and indifferent dancing skills, but you are sure to admire the endearing charm and boundless energy she expends in this big, brassy, tuneful musical revival.
While "Sweet Charity" may have lost this year’s Tony award for Best Musical Revival to "La Cage aux Folles" (since closed), the Cy Coleman (music) Dorothy Fields (lyrics) Neil Simon (book) musical has plenty going for it. The initial response in 1966 to the musical, based on Federico Fellini’s memorable 1957 film, "Nights of Cabiria" (starring the incomparable Giuletta Masina), was tepid despite the memorable performance of Gwen Verdon inhabiting the sexy moves of choreography/director Bob Fosse. It became a hit through the sheer force of talent exhibited by this dynamic duo. The role of an optimistic hooker/taxi dancer who longs for true love but is continuously conned and jilted offers its interpreter plenty of leeway.
Applegate may lack that indefinable force known as star quality but she does instill in Charity Hope Valentine a glow that certainly never dims despite the fact that everything that can go wrong in her life does. She proves herself quite capable in top hat and cane in the delightful "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and then the high-kicking parading with the male dancers in the spirited "I’m a Brass Band." The same can be said of her trooping with Charity’s two street-smart dance-hall friends, excellently danced by Janine LaManna and Kyra DaCosta.
Wayne Cilento’s choreography certainly makes a bid to reflect Fosse’s style and does it robustly in such audience pleasers as the farcical "Rich Man’s Frug," and the now classic "Big Spender," in which the girls of the Fandango Ballroom gyrate, preen, and entice their customers with deliciously course intimations.
As the men in Charity’s life, Paul Schoeffler, as Vittorio Vadal, the almost one-night-stand movie star, and Denis O’Hare, as Oscar, the timid and intimidated accountant, offer deftly appealing supporting portrayals. After almost 40 years, we can still say Simon’s book contains some funny scenes, particularly watching Charity survive, with remarkable ingenuity, the indignities of being hidden in a famous movie star’s closet, as the dashing Lothario is coerced into making love to his unexpectedly arriving girlfriend. As directed with a fair amount of creative input by Walter Bobbie, Sweet Charity also comes prettily wrapped up in Scott Pask’s clever and colorful settings.
Sweet Charity, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.