Not many contemporary Broadway musicals could make the transition to an opera house. Imagine “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” at the Metropolitan Opera or “Mean Girls” at La Scala. Accusations of sacrilege would not be amiss.
“The Light in the Piazza” at L.A. Opera, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. Adam Guettel’s Tony-winning score has an orchestral lushness that invites scaling up. When this show arrived on Broadway in 2005, it seemed like a genteel throwback to an older tradition of musicals. Certainly, the work had its peculiarities and shortcomings. But amid all the clamorous jukebox musicals, it stood out as a Cadillac in an amusement park of bumper cars.
But invariably when a show of this kind transitions from one artistic setting to another, something is lost as well as gained. On the plus side, Daniel Evans’ production of “The Light in the Piazza,” which had its premiere at London’s Royal Festival Hall in June, boasts the radiant star power of Renée Fleming in the role that won Victoria Clark a Tony.
Fleming refashions in her own image Margaret Johnson, the well-heeled American mother traveling with her adult daughter in Italy and guarding this young woman with a heartbreaking secret. On the musical’s long journey from its Broadway beginnings at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the L.A. Opera presentation of this latest revival had its opening on Saturday, Margaret has become quite glamorous, a romantic heroine ready at a moment’s notice to break out of the conventional confines of her story.
Floating about the stage in a perfumed cloud, Fleming upholds her goddess stature as an opera diva while portraying Margaret as a maternal lioness who can still command a room with her elegance and fire. The characterization isn’t as dramatically embodied as Clark’s. It can’t be in a production that doesn’t even try for intimacy on a curved set (by Robert Jones) that is dominated by statuary and serves as a track for a motor scooter.
The distance breeds detachment from Craig Lucas’ complicated book, based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer that layers Henry James-inspired intricacy and ambiguity into a romance about Americans abroad. For much of the musical’s first half, I felt at a remove from the characters. The emotional dynamics of the story are never easy to get right, but here the challenge is compounded by a production that aspires to be both grand and gritty.
Dove Cameron, a Disney star with fairy-princess appeal and a sweet if not all that piercing voice, plays Clara, Margaret’s 26-year-old daughter, who was developmentally stunted in childhood after being kicked in the head by a pony. Clara’s condition tends to be portrayed as a metaphor disguised as a medical impairment, but here the reality is undeniable.
Fleming’s Margaret watches Cameron’s Clara with the vigilance of a mother with a special needs child. She doesn’t want to deny a full life to Clara, who has caught the attention of a winsome young Italian named Fabrizio (a sensational Rob Houchen), but she knows that her erratic daughter requires protection.
Fleming and Cameron delicately negotiate this poignant mother-child relationship. Yet when the production swirls into a more operatic mode, psychological truth dissipates. The swelling music and the zigzagging drama aren’t perfectly aligned, and the larger stage canvas throws the discrepancy into relief.
Guettel’s score has a gorgeous sumptuousness, especially during those passages of cascading strings, but the lyric writing isn’t equal to the orchestral beauty. (Conductor Kimberly Grigsby draws out much of the musical color, though even in this respect the work would benefit from a more intimate house.) It comes almost as a relief when a performer in an emotional frenzy is released from Guettel’s lyrics into a wordless incantation of expressive sound.
Fleming’s early songs don’t allow her to lift off. There’s a noticeable gap between what she can do and what she’s asked to do. Clark’s Margaret, wearing her prim costumes with the authority of a general in full uniform, sang her numbers as an outgrowth of her characterization, blurring the distinction between speech and song. The romantic contours of Fleming’s character are a bit more slippery, and though she’s incontestably an opera luminary who can act in any theatrical context (including last year’s Broadway revival of “Carousel”), the sheer wattage of her stage presence occasionally distracts from the nuances of her performance.
Houchen — the standout in a cast that includes two-time Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fabrizio’s father and a spirited Celinde Schoenmaker as Fabrizio’s earthy sister-in-law — is the most adept at finding a balance between opera and musical theater. In Fabrizio’s number “Love to Me,” in which he assures Clara that he adores her because he truly sees her, the production touches a romantic sublimity. In his L.A. Opera debut, Houchen, a “Les Misérables” alum from England, announces himself as a meteoric star.
Not that there’s a smidgen of doubt about the reason this production has come into existence. Fleming delivers the goods in the show’s climax. When her Margaret sings the word “love” repeatedly, it becomes a prayer not only for her daughter but also for herself and the world.
The poetic beauty of “The Light in the Piazza” is realized in these final moments when a mother comes to understand that happiness is a risk that must be taken if life isn’t to be denied. Sound and sense are at last joined, making the distinction between Broadway and opera irrelevant.
When: Through Oct. 20
Tickets: $19-$199 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes