Broadway musical looks good and sounds even better
Review – The Light in the Piazza at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall
Our critics rating: Five Stars
Date: Wednesday, 19 June, 2019
Review by: Mark Shenton
No, it’s not Mamma Mia!, the ABBA jukebox compilation threaded around an impending Greek island wedding that (as the advertising tagline has it) you already know you’re going to love, such is the familiarity of its score full of pop hits. But The Light in the Piazza is a musical that instead, you can grow to love, as I have with all my heart since I first saw its Broadway premiere in 2005.
You may not go in knowing all the tunes, but this show – which like Mamma Mia! revolves around a youthful romance and wedding, this time in Florence, Italy – utterly envelops you in a gorgeous wall of yearning melody that’s one of the great Broadway scores of the century so far, right up there with Next to Normal and Hamilton. (It deservedly won the 2005 Tony Award for best original score).
Composer Adam Guettel comes with some pedigree: he is the grandson of Richard Rodgers, one of the greatest melodists of the last century, though he has sadly hardly been as prolific. (Apart from incidental music to the current To Kill a Mockingbird, this show is his sole Broadway credit; while Off-Broadway he has created the masterpiece Floyd Collins but not much else to date).
But I am, at least, grateful for what we have, and The Light in the Piazza is a score of swelling, surging musical joy, full of meltingly lovely arias, laments and a sense of overwhelming feeling. I don’t think that there’s a more ravishing sound to be heard in all of London right now.
And the luxury casting of Daniel Evans’s London premiere of the show – in the players of both the cast and onstage orchestra – ensures that it is heard at its exquisite best. Renée Fleming, a superstar of the operatic world who last year crossed over to the Broadway stage in a revival of Carousel, is in utterly thrilling voice as Margaret Johnson, an American woman who takes her daughter Clara on a sightseeing holiday to Florence and Rome. There’s a completely unforced shimmer to her voice, and she brings a finely-contained sense of emotion to her acting, too.
She is exquisitely matched by Dove Cameron, the young star of Disney’s Descendants franchise, as her daughter Clara, who has a vocal radiance of her own to match her beautiful physical presence. As Fabrizio, the young Italian man she falls in love with, Rob Houchen – a youthful veteran of Les Miserables – has an ardent intensity, and manages to establish his character beautifully despite the only faltering English he is allowed to speak.
There is similarly wonderful casting around them, with fine character acting from Alex Jennings, Marie McLaughlin, Liame Tamne and Celinde Schoenmaker as Fabrizio’s father, mother, brother and sister-in-law respectively, and Malcolm Sinclair in a brief but telling portrait of Clara’s absent father.
The 35-piece onstage orchestra, borrowed from Opera North, is conducted by Kimberly Gigsby, who was also the musical director of the show’s original Broadway run, and ensures a lush, full-bodied strings-based sound.
If I’m honest, the Royal Festival Hall is not necessarily the most hospitable home for an intimate show you want to hug to your heart, but sound designer Mick Potter ensures that every word is heard, and Robert Jones’s static cut-away set of a Florentine piazza provides a visually beautiful backdrop. This is a real summer treat.
The Light in the Piazza is at the Southbank Centre to 5th July.