The Light in the Piazza

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through June 27

A single moment can sum up much of an entire musical. In The Light in the Piazza, it comes just after the one-minute mark into “Statues and Stories,” the first song in composer Adam Guettel’s bewitching score.

As Margaret Johnson sings to her daughter Clara, while on vacation, about Florence’s history as the birthplace of the Renaissance, the driving, high chimes in the keyboards and bells climb from the tentative, enigmatic beauty of a diminished fifth chord to the confidence of a perfect fifth in the key of Ebefore reverting back to the diminished chord’s enigma once again, while a change in the stringed bass causes the song’s foundation to subtly shift beneath their words. A moment later, one of the fundamental building blocks of harmonya pulsing tonic chordrests, temporarily, at an awkward angle atop a discordant foundation in the bass.

The shimmering effect is something of a musical fata morgana: a teasing moment that calls into question the reality of the splendor that surrounds the pair as they stand in the Piazza della Signoriaand, possibly, how real the two women are themselves. The moment entirely befits a work that questionsgently, for the most partjust how much of love is chimera, and just how knowable another person’s heart or mind ever is.

In Chapel Hill resident Elizabeth Spencer’s novella (which was made into a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland and George Hamilton), Margaret, a Southern matriarch from Winston-Salem, must play “a tricky game in a foreign country” and decide, on her own, if a whirlwind romance between Clara and a Florentine youth named Fabrizio will be her daughter’s last chance to know true love on her own terms.

A professional touring version gave the Tony Award-winning 2005 musical its regional premiere three years ago. By now, those who caught it are wondering if local companies would be up to the technical challenges of the work. Craig Lucas’ adaptation unfolds in 11 separate settings, while the prismatic harmonies and calculated dissonances of Guettel’s lush score take an orchestra beyond conventional Broadway fare.

Unfortunately, this Raleigh Little Theatre production returns a mixed verdict. If Rick Young’s coral-tinged set of faux masonry and marble effectively ushered us from locale to locale, a mobile arch set piece began to upstage scenes when it was increasingly deployed during the second act.

Musical director Julie Florin is nothing if not an orchestral veteran of the regional stage. But in the Sutton Theater, imbalance was the word on opening night. From the eighth row of a sold-out house, the stringed basses were nearly as inaudible during much of the performance as the lower registers in the cellos and the piano. The resulting mix too often left inadequately supported vocalists soaring over orchestrations that sounded more threadbare than they actually were. What is clearly a matter of bad acoustics needs to be resolved by adding individually amplified instruments to sound designer Todd Houseknecht’s house mix. If not, remaining audiences are likely to get the feeling they’re listening to the show through a broken stereo with little or no bass.

Though Italian accents came and went, in dialogue as well as musical numbers like “Il Mondo Era Vuoto (The World Was Empty)” and “Aiutamo (Help Me),” Megan Crosson as Margaret gave solo numbers like “Dividing Day” an enviable gravitas as her character questioned her own marriage while pondering Clara’s possible nuptials. Soprano Katie Hennenlotter brought clarity and innocence to Clara’s solos in the truly haunting song “The Beauty Is” and the title number. Katherine Anderson’s solo in “The Joy You Feel” gave heft to her supporting role as Franca.

These triumphs can’t, however, mitigate the fundamental difficulties a theatrically winningbut vocally miscastBrenton Blakesley experienced in the high registers of his numbers as the male lead, Fabrizio. Such artistic and technical shortcomings limited the enchantment of a musical that questions the role of enchantment in affairs of the heart.

Correction (June 10, 2010): The 1962 movie starred George Hamilton, not George Harrison. Harrison was busy with The Beatles that year.