As it was at the overture and shall be at the exit music, bliss without end. Amen.

Theatre Aficionado at Large

Tag: Craig Lucas

A New Old World Revisited

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Late in the second act of The Light in the Piazza, Margaret Johnson tells Signor Naccarelli “There is no survey of the facts like time.” He doesn’t understand what she means, but in the years since the show’s premiere I’ve come to appreciate what she was saying. Piazza opened on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater on Monday, April 18 2005. I was in the house that night and fell hard and fast for a complex, character-driven musical for grownups. I’ve never had quite so visceral a reaction to any other show before or since.

The musical garnered favorable notices, and went on to win a whopping six Tony Awards (out of 11 nominations), extending its limited engagement four times, and airing as part of Live from Lincoln Center on PBS. Time has proven kind to the show. There have been many regional productions, the cast album is popular among musical theatre fans, and songs from the score are being sung to death in classes and auditions everywhere.

I first took notice of The Light in the Piazza in early 2003, when I saw a news article announcing that Victoria Clark had been cast for the world premiere at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. Unlike most 19 year olds, I was familiar with the 1962 film adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella (because of its star Olivia de Havilland). The story involves Margaret Johnson, a wealthy southern matron and her beautiful daughter Clara, who are vacationing in 1950s Florence, Italy. Clara was injured in a childhood accident involving a Shetland pony, leaving her mentally and emotionally stunted. When love blooms between Clara and the handsome Fabrizio, Margaret steps in to try and stop them.

My friend Noah Himmelstein attended one of the early Broadway previews and called me afterward to tell me I had to see it. He told me I should sign up for the LCT student rush program and insisted I avoid any samples of music or preview clips before seeing it. I was staggered when I was able to score a $20 to the show’s opening night (my first).

My professors excused me from all my classes that day, and I decided to spend my afternoon roaming about midtown, before heading to the Beaumont Theatre (another first for me). I people-watched in the lobby as John Lithgow, Helen Hunt and Maggie Gyllenhaal walked by until it was time to settle in to my rear loge seat.

As for Adam Guettel’s score, it was love at first measure. The moment I heard that first harp gliss, I knew deep inside that I was going to love what I was about to hear. My most vivid memories of opening night are the rousing ovation Victoria Clark received for “Dividing Day,” observing the pair next to me clutching each other and weeping as Kelli O’Hara sang the title song, and how the applause would not subside until Adam Guettel, Craig Lucas and Bartlett Sher took a bow. My immediate reaction was to call Noah on my way out of the lobby, telling him it was the greatest musical I’d ever seen. He read me Eric Grode’s rave review from Broadway.com over the phone. When we hung up, I dreamily roamed about the plaza at Lincoln Center (almost bumping into Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer).

To say that the musical consumed my life would be an understatement. It was all I could talk about for the remainder of its run. I talked about the show at length with anyone who would listen (I’m still occasionally apologizing to my closest friends). I even bought the cast album the day before its official release at Colony Records, and it didn’t leave my CD player for five months.

Then came the repeat attending. I was living in New Paltz, NY at the time, going to college and working at the campus library. Sundays were my day off so I would take an early Trailways bus into Manhattan, pick up at a ticket at TKTS and spend my afternoon being transported to 1953 Florence. I was at the final performances of Mark Harelik and Kelli O’Hara, the Live from Lincoln Center telecast and the highly emotional closing performance. In all, I saw the original Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza twelve times. I only wish I had gone more.

Before it was officially announced, I found out that there would be a 10th anniversary reunion concert when one of the cast members posted his regrets that he couldn’t be there. It took some sleuthing, but I was able to figure out that it was indeed happening in April at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. (It’s actually the 11th anniversary, but that’s a minor point). The moment tickets went on sale, I tried to get LincTix but was told “We’re sorry there are no tickets available.” I tried again and got the same message. So I panicked and bought a full-price front row center seat in the loge. No regrets.

Appearing in the concert were original cast members (in alphabetical order) Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, David Bonanno, Victoria Clark, Patti Cohenour, Beau Gravitte, Mark Harelik, Jennifer Hughes, Felicity LaFortune, Matthew Morrison, Kelli O’Hara, Adam Overett, Joseph Siravo, and Diane Sutherland.

On the day of the concert I could hardly contain my excitement. I was doing something I never thought I’d get to do again: to hear this score sung by this cast in the same venue. As people gathered in the lobby I was flooded with so memories: people watching the first nighters by the understudy board, or trying the show’s signature cocktail on my 8th trip (it wasn’t great). I remember browsing through the cast albums at Tower Records or books at Barnes and Noble (both long gone), or just happily roaming the LC campus. Everywhere I looked the night of the concert, I saw friends, including some I had seen the show, the most poignant of all being Noah.

The orchestra, led once again by Ted Sperling, was onstage, centered between upstage pillars of the massive set for The King and I. It was a delightful surprise to hear the complete overture, which was abridged during the show’s preview period (but recorded in its entirety for the cast album).

The actors had chairs and music stands lined up towards the lip of the main stage area and performed the show mostly off-book in the thrust space. The cast was, if anything, better than they were ten years ago; deeper, richer. There was a magical combination of nostalgia and muscle memory. They hit similar marks from the original staging with just a few props. Certain line readings brought familiar laughs. They even went so far as to recreate the breathtaking hat trick that incites the love story.

Victoria Clark, who won a Tony for the original production, is still a tremendous force as Margaret, the guarded, patrician mother. Her beautiful dramatic soprano is the perfect complement for the charming, complex woman she created years ago, and dare I say it, she looks even better now than she did then. The show has inexplicably never played London, and I think it’s time that both Piazza and Ms. Clark made their West End debuts.

Kelli O’Hara was something of a revelation to me, which is a bit surprising considering I saw her in the original production seven times (and I thought her spectacular then). She was freer and funnier; more at ease with making Clara’s pain and confusion more layered and more deeply felt. Her soprano is in peak form and her upper register is flourishing. The evening showed just how much Ms. O’Hara has grown as an artist and a leading lady in the past decade. Her rendition of the title song was a bona fide showstopper, as though everything she had ever done in her entire career had built to that one flawless moment.

Sarah Uriarte Berry sounds better than ever, and was on fire as jaded Franca, giving the best performance I’ve seen her give of her first act solo “The Joy You Feel” (for the record, her high F in “Aiutami” was jaw-dropping). I’d love to see Ms. Berry take on The Bridges of Madison County as soon as possible. It was also great to see stalwart Patti Cohenour back on Broadway, even if only for one night. Her soprano is still strong and supple, and it was quite moving to see her wiping away copious tears during “Love to Me.”

Speaking of tears, emotions ran high throughout the night. At any given moment, you could catch a performer welling up whether it was Kelli onstage, Kelli watching Vicki, Vicki onstage, Vicki watching Kelli, etc. The audience and cast were practically ugly-crying as one by the end of “Fable.”

When the lights came up, the person next to me, a total stranger, handed me a tissue without saying a word. It was a profound experience for me; one of the most personal of my life. I was overwhelmed by memories of a very happy, joyous time in my life and was glad to be able to share it with so many friends, old and new.

"It’s a New Old World…"


On this day three years ago I attended my first-ever Broadway opening night. It was also the night I fell madly in love with a new musical; a feeling that I had never experienced before nor since. The show: The Light in the Piazza.

It was an interesting progression for me. I was familiar with the film adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s original novella when it played on TCM a few years before. It starred Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux, respectively, as the mother and her daughter on vacation in Florence, Italy. George Hamilton was Fabrizio, who came off lecherous rather than romantic – to the point where I was actually disappointed the two got together. Rossano Brazzi was his father. It wasn’t a spectacular film, but it featured a stellar performance from de Havilland and beautiful CinemaScope cinematography (shot on location).

Anyway, as I heard this was being adapted as a stage musical, I was instantly intrigued at the prospect. I’d never really heard Adam Guettel before. I knew about Floyd Collins and that he was Richard Rodgers’ grandson, but that was it. I vaguely followed the musical while it was out of town, my interest piqued because I had recently seen Victoria Clark in performance for the first time in the Broadway production of Urinetown, in which she briefly assumed the role of Penelope Pennywise. Hearing her knock “It’s a Privilege to Pee” out of the ballpark remains one of my favorite discoveries of a talent ever. The song is mostly high belting, but it culminates in an operatic high C. From my vantage point mid mezzanine at the old Henry Miller’s I could hear her acoustic sound. Needless to say, I was very impressed.

When time came for the show to come into New York, I very calmly yet honestly told everyone it was the musical I was looking forward to the most. The out of town reviews were mixed to positive, but it was a work in progress so I expected continued work. Vicki earned raves for her characterization of Margaret Johnson and was supported by Celia Keenan-Bolger as her daughter, initially in Seattle at the Intiman (where Sher is artistic director) and in Chicago at the Goodman.

It was Lincoln Center Theatre who brought the musical to Broadway as part of their 2005 season. Noah went to a preview and called raving about and I knew that we were onto something special here. I followed his lead and joined the student ticketing program on the Lincoln Center website and proceeded to look for my $20 seat. When performing my search I did a double take when I saw they were offering the opening night performance for sale (While roaming through Lincoln Center on the day of the show, I would discovered the opening night performance was on TKTS). Well, I snatched that up immediately. My seat was in the rear of the Loge, but that didn’t matter for that price and the opportunity.

I’d only done the closing of the Bernadette Peters Gypsy prior to this, so my experience with high energy theatrical events was considerably limited. But there in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont I watched as John Lithgow, Helen Hunt, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Adam Guettel, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Frank Rich roamed about while Mary Rodgers Guettel stood receiving people like royalty.

The uniqueness of this experience is pretty much beyond the mere use of words. I can draw out all the adjectives I know: resplendent, ethereal, cathartic, et al. to describe what is was like for me. But none can ever do justice to the emotional impact that was delivered. I made fast friends with an aspiring actress and her friend next to me. There was the hat placed downstage center on the bench with a pin spot. The cell phone announcement wonderfully delivered in Italian by Felicity LaFortune. Then down came the house lights. And that overture started. A simple harp gliss with a hint of tension building from other instruments which released into the main “Light” theme. I knew within seconds – and this is a rare occurrence – that I was going to love this new musical. And I did. I immersed myself in the beauty and grace of the musical’s staging and scenography. I am forever a fan of Bartlett Sher. One thing about that opening night performance I will specifically never forget is how “Dividing Day” completely devastated me.

The actors were stellar, such legit singing on Broadway, though I was thrown by the more pop sounding Matthew Morrison as Fabrizio, though admittedly, he grew on me during the run. Kelli O’Hara was the perfect embodiment of the child-like Clara, creating a character of nuance and ambiguity that complemented Clark’s Margaret (her replacement Katie Rose Clarke, embodied the childish aspects of the character as well, but was nowhere near O’Hara on the acting and singing fronts). But the entire performance was centered around Clark’s tour de force as Margaret, giving a devastatingly beautiful performance that ranks among the best I have ever seen in my theatregoing life.

The first act ended with the gorgeous “Say it Somehow” with that coda and gasp-inducing black out. The second act ended with “Fable.” The audience went wild. I mean we went completely nuts – the entire house was on its feet before a single person re-entered for their curtain call. And another theatrical first: after the actors made their exit, our applause continued and continued. In fact grew louder and we would only cease once Messrs. Guettel, Sher and Lucas made a bow. I had a feeling akin to sailing, I think. A natural high. I had been both moved and affected by this work of art which to me was challenging but accessible.

I like to consider 4.18.05 the night I rediscovered my lost romanticism. As I left the Beaumont, I was already on my cell phone to Noah, proclaiming “Oh my God, this is the best new musical I’ve ever seen.” And he proceeded to read me back a rave review from Broadway.com. I strolled by the fountain at Lincoln Center in a daze, almost walking into Mr. & Mrs. Peter Boyle, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, who were attending a Dustin Hoffman celebration at Avery Fisher Hall. I watched a rather attractive young couple walk by the fountain, also having emerged from Avery Fisher. The gentleman placed his topcoat over the shoulders of his lover with such tenderness and care that I could and only pause and smile. Truth be told, I’d been more likely to roll my eyes and scoff, but then again, it’s much easier to be a cynic than a romantic, no?

The score was unlike anything I could have anticipated. Orchestrated with as many strings as there are stars in the skies. (I’m a wee bit prone to hyperbole, sue me). All woodwinds save the flute and piccolo, which added just a tinge of melancholy to the score’s sound. And of course there’s that harp, that gorgeous harp around which the entire orchestration is built. I would venture a guess that I’ve listened to this score more times than any other. There were five months where the CD rarely left my player. And the repeat button was on. And repeat listenings/viewings only unraveled more and more depth and skill in the music and lyrics. (I know some people loathed the lyrics, but I admired their dramatic honesty and simplicity). Guettel as a musical composer managed to create a hybrid of the Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Sondheim schools of musical theatre, infused with a neo-classicist stream of consciousness in the flow of the melody.

It was also the night I became an ardent fan and supporter of the Lincoln Center Theatre, a non-profit company that is not afraid to take artistic risks and not afraid to spare any expense when they believe in a work. The show would eventually win six Tony awards – the most of any show that year – including a deserved sweep in the scenographic categories: Lighting, Scenic and Costume Design (the combination of the elements made me feel as though I was actually in Florence). The show was also awarded for its rich orchestrations, score and the coup d’grace: Best Actress in a Musical for Victoria Clark, whose performance in the role will one day be considered legendary. The show may have lost the Best Musical Tony, but it had already won Best Musical of my Heart – sentimental, yes, but I’ve never given that designation to any other show.

The 2004-05 season became a joyous one with four solid shows opening towards the end of the season, three of which were Spamalot, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the fourth was Piazza, which became a surprise hit for LCT and warranted several extensions past its original June closing date (eventually extending its run by 54 weeks). By the time it closed on June 2, 2006, it had played 504 performances at the Vivian Beaumont. It would shortly thereafter launch a year-long national tour starring Christine Andreas and Elena Shaddow.

For the first time, I was compelled to go back to a Broadway show. Even when I thought of it prior, I had for whatever reason decided not to. But I returned, and returned. By the time of the closing (which, yes, I also attended) I had seen the musical 12 times. Can you believe it? And no, I don’t regret spending the money on it at all. If I could have, I would have gone back many, many more times. At this point, I do have to thank my friends who were so wonderful putting up with my year and four months of complete and total obsession. I wanted everyone to see this show, hear this score and could talk of little else. I took my a good friend to the closing performance who had listened to me harp on about the show for well over a year. He soon learned that I was rather calm in comparison to the woman to his left (who shouted “MATT!” at Matthew Morrison, who was in the audience for the last show, until he turned and gave her a quick wave). The only new musical to open since that I have appreciated nearly as much was Grey Gardens. I only hope it won’t be too long until a new musical captures my undivided attention.

The Light in the Piazza was a rare experience, and one which will forever hold a special place in my mind and soul. April 18th will always be an incredibly poignant and nostalgic date for me.

Here is Vicki Clark as Margaret Johnson performing the incandescent finale, “Fable.”

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Walking Among My Yesterdays

2016

2/11 - The King and I

2/12 - Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

2/14 - Cabin in the Sky (Encores!)

2/16 - Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

2/19 - She Loves Me (first preview)

2/21 - Translations (Oxford Arts Space)

2/22 - The Secret Garden (MCP Concert)

2/28 - Anna Netrebko in Recital (Met Opera)

2/28 - Kate Baldwin & Friends: Welcome to My Party (Sheen Center)

3/9 - She Loves Me

3/11 - Noises Off

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

4/3 - 1776 (Encores!)

4/4 - The Light in the Piazza (10th Anniversary Reunion Concert)

4/25 - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

4/28 - Dido and Aeneas (City Center)

5/15 - Do I Hear a Waltz? (City Center Encores!)

5/25 - The Robber Bridegroom

6/3 - The Color Purple

6/8 - Bright Star

6/13 - Lettice and Lovage (Acting Company Benefit)

6/26 - The King and I

7/23 - Shuffle Along

10/24 - Sunday in the Park with George (City Center Encores! Gala)

10/29 - Kelli O'Hara at Carnegie Hall

11/9 - Guillaume Tell (Met Opera)

11/23 - Half a Sixpence (West End)

11/24 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/25 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

11/28 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/29 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

12/12 - Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Gala)

12/14 - In Transit

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2015

1/1 - Beautiful

1/8 - Honeymoon in Vegas

1/12 - A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration (92nd Street Y)

1/15 - On the Town

1/25 - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Paper Mill Playhouse, opening night)

1/28 - The Merry Widow (Met Opera)

1/30 - The Elephant Man

2/6 - Lady, Be Good! (Encores!)

2/13 - The Screen (Taksu Theatre Company)

2/19 - You Can't Take It With You

2/27 - The Lion

3/1 - John and Jen

3/3 - Craig Ferguson: Hot & Grumpy Tour

3/8 - The Audience (opening night)

3/12 - The King and I (first preview)

3/17 - Hand to God

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

3/22 - Paint Your Wagon (Encores!)

3/25 - Cabaret

3/26 - The Visit (first preview)

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 1

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 2

4/8 - Gigi (opening night)

4/9 - Rhiannon Giddens at Town Hall

4/21 - Gypsy (West End)

4/22 - Wicked (West End)

4/22 - The Audience (West End)

4/23 - The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

4/24 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (West End)

4/25 - Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)

4/25 - Matilda (West End)

4/27 - Sweeney Todd (Tooting Arts Club)

4/28 - Follies (Royal Albert Hall)

4/28 - Gypsy (West End)

5/10 - Zorba (Encores!)

5/26 - The Visit

6/2 - On the Twentieth Century

6/9 - The King and I

6/14 - The Visit

7/2 - Little Shop of Horrors (Encores!)

9/21 - Hollywood Arms (Merkin Hall Reading)

10/4 - Dames at Sea

10/14 - King Charles III

10/16 - The Pirates of Penzance (Collegiate Chorale)

10/27 - Spring Awakening

11/2 - Kate Baldwin: Sing Pretty and Don't Fall Down (Keen Company Benefit)

11/17 - Songbird

11/25 - Gypsy (West End)

11/28 - Gypsy (West End, closing)

11/30 - The Winter's Tale (West End)

12/1 - Kinky Boots (West End)

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