Thursday, 20 June 2019

REVIEW: The Light in the Piazza at the Southbank Centre

The original Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza thrust Kelli O’Hara into stardom, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone would have the same fortune in this rather limp production, currently playing at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Margaret Johnson (Opera star and Tony-nominee Renée Fleming) brings her daughter Clara (Dove Cameron) to Italy for a summer holiday, showing her the sights and teaching her the history. Clara however is more interested in Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen). The rub? Clara was kicked in the head by a pony as a child, and is therefore emotionally and mentally undeveloped.

Daniel Evans has assembled a stellar cast, but unfortunately the piece itself never allows them the opportunity to really show us what they can do. The ensemble are severely underused, with just a few bars of the opening to sing, before spending the rest of the evening milling about like scene fillers in an opera.

Fleming’s material is uninteresting, and sits so low that she never gets to roll out her famous soprano. Her dialogue often becomes a monologue, but it is difficult to sympathise with her (should she let her daughter get married, or break her heart and bring her home to the States?) because the storyline is so boring.

As Clara, Dove Cameron is sickly sweet, and gives a performance akin to a Disney princess. She doesn’t maintain her vocal quality, switching between contemporary and the classical sound the piece requires, which is jarring at times. Her voice is delicate, but there is no variety, and she does not provide a punch when it’s needed. I have to question why Cameron has been brought over for this production, when London has a plethora of women in its arsenal that would do a fine job in this role.

Rob Houchen is undoubtedly one of the biggest talents of his generation. Here, we are treated to a stunning turn as the Italian suitor, using broken English to woo his love. Il Mondo Era Vuoto is most definitely a highlight, but again, the music holds Houchen back. Every time you think the score will take flight, it changes direction and we are left disappointed. Houchen is endlessly charming, and something of a saving grace in this production.

Every member of the cast is dressed exquisitely, thanks to Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costume design. Where the score lacks romance, the costumes provide in spades.

As well as issues with microphones (cues missed, interference and crackling), everything about this production is far too quiet. The orchestra is fighting a losing battle right from the off, because even at the score’s most dramatic points, it feels as if it is being played from the next room, rather than raising the roof of the Royal Festival Hall.

Adam Guettel’s score never thrills, despite being performed by Opera North’s vast orchestra. There are definitely influences of Sondheim here, but the songs are mostly dull, and we spend much of our time trying to work out what is happening, particularly in moments when the action is played out in Italian. In Act II, Signora Naccarelli breaks the forth wall and says, “I do not speak English, but I have to explain what is going on”, which garners a mixture of laughter and groaning from the audience.

It’s difficult to see where the inspiration for this production came from, given that the show itself is so lifeless. Is it a vehicle for Renée Fleming or Dove Cameron? If that’s the case, Evans could have chosen any number of shows instead. Playing for just 20 performances, this production of The Light in the Piazza will not make it into the history books.

Review by Ian Marshall

Rating: ★★

Seat: Stalls K18 | Price of ticket: £150
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