Fans of Broadway musicals have a game they play: what’s the Tony Awards’ worst snub of a great musical? Is it when “West Side Story” lost to “The Music Man,” in 1958? Is it when “Sunday in the Park with George” lost to “La Cage aux Folles,” in 1984?
For me, the greatest injustice took place in 2005 when “Spamalot” beat out “The Light in the Piazza.” Back then, the Broadway community loved that the Monty Python spoof had delivered a stage musical that heterosexual men could enjoy without feeling guilty or gay. Don’t believe me? Check out the New York Times article “’Spamalot’ Discovers the Straight White Way.”
The Tonys in 2005 made some amends by giving its award for best score to Adam Guettel, who wrote the “Piazza” songs. But even then, there was controversy, since some of the most highly placed but musically illiterate theater critics had dismissed that score as mere “underscoring” or “recitative.” The reviews were such that Lincoln Center Theater nearly had to close “Piazza” early, but were saved when one of the Old Gray Lady’s music critics reviewed the show’s quickly released CD. Stephen Holden wrote a flat-out rave.
Nearly two decades later, “The Light in the Piazza” remains just what Holden called it, “the most intensely romantic score of any Broadway musical since ‘West Side Story.’” That show, with Guettel’s music set to a wonderful book by Craig Lucas, opened Wednesday at Encores! at New York City Center.
This long-overdue revival is nothing less than vocally stunning, and the singer-actors do complete justice to this century’s greatest musical. I was going to write “greatest score,” but the real revelation of this Encores! production under the astute direction of Chay Yew is Lucas’ stage adaptation of the novel by Elizabeth Spencer. Lucas’ book is as light as the sun falling on the Arno River and as rock solid as the Ponte Vecchio itself.
A protective American mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) visits Florence, Italy, with her mentally challenged daughter (Anna Zavelson), who promptly falls in love with a young Italian man (James D. Gish). What’s a mom to do? Should she be honest with the boy’s parents (Ivan Hernandez and Andrea Burns)? Or let her “special” daughter have a life?
Miles presents a much steelier mother than Victoria Clark did in the original LTC production. She lightens her performance by frequently surprising us with sharp observations that speak to a youth in her that this character has all but forgotten. The daughter’s liberation becomes the mother’s, as well. Mom’s decision not to do the responsible thing of telling the Italian parents the truth is heightened here by making the daughter a real handful.
Zavelson presents a far more disturbed child than Kelli O’Hara did in the original production. Yew’s direction raises the stakes dramatically. He plays up the many scenes in which the daughter, set off by some minor incident or comment, has a complete mental breakdown. It has been the mother’s job to handle these situations. When it quickly becomes obvious that a young male stranger can fill that role far more effectively, again, what’s a mom to do?
Yew also makes much of the musical’s secondary love story, the one between the two parents who just happen to be married to other people. Miles and Hernandez, beautifully understated throughout, turn this unexpected moment into a dramatic highlight, imbuing it with incredible erotic suspense.
Musical theater depends on characters falling in love really fast. For people who roll their eyes at musicals, it’s what they despise most about the form. Guettel doesn’t resort to some conditional love song to do the job. Zavelson and Gish take one look at each other, and the music does the rest. It helps that his Italian character doesn’t speak English and her American character, while being 26 years old, has the mental capacity and maturity of a 12-year-old. And there is one other thing that makes it all work: Zavelson and Gish, when they sing, cause us to fall in love with them. Truly great singing has a way of having that magical effect on an audience. On Broadway, Gish has been stuck playing Fiyero in “Wicked,” a thankless role if there ever was one. Wake up, producers: The guy is a star! Zavelson, astoundingly, makes her New York theater debut here. If Broadway doesn’t grab this young singer, now in college, the Met Opera has a few soubrette roles she’s ready for immediately.
Thanks to the “American Idol” aesthetic that has infected many new Broadway musicals, audiences are now encouraged to applaud as soon as a singer hits a high note and some technician in the back of the theater artificially pumps up the volume. What a pleasure to see an audience sit silent and spellbound whenever Zavelson, Gish and Miles sing. Repeatedly, the well-deserved ovations were held until after the very last note.