Smile Politely

From page to screen to stage: An Italian love story at the opera

The musical version of The Light in the Piazza has had a long voyage from novella to film to the stage. The complex demands behind its seemingly simple songs make it an ideal vehicle for operatically trained singers, or an opera company. For its final production of the season, the Lyric Theatre @ Illinois will use our prime musical talent to bring this musical to Krannert’s Tryon Festival Theatre.

Its many incarnations started in 1960 with Elizabeth Spencer’s novella, The Light in the Piazza. This well-received story was almost immediately optioned to MGM and producer Arthur Freed. Although Freed is best known for his musicals, the 1962 film is a faithful dramatic screen adaptation of Ms. Spencer’s story with no songs.

The film scripted by Julius Epstein and directed by Guy Green is a superb cinematic soap opera, with first-rate actors and location settings.

Filmed in Rome, where the story takes place, it concerns a vacationing American mother (Olivia de Havilland) in Italy and her beautiful, but intellectually backward daughter (Yvette Mimueux). The daughter finds love In Rome, but when his Italian family discover the truth about the daughter, the tension escalates. It is that classic battle of love over practical matters, and you wait until the end for the winner.

This story is not only naturally dramatic with good guys to root for, but a great vehicle for actors. So, why not a great vehicle for singers who can act?

Enter Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel in 2003 in Seattle. At their Intiman Playhouse, the stage musical was developed over the summer of 2003 and then sent to Chicago for a winter run in 2004 at the Goodman Theatre. It was at the Goodman that the cast for the New York run was set.

Stage veteran Victoria Clark played the mother and received rave reviews in Chicago and New York and went on the win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. The daughter was played by a stunning newcomer named Kelli O’Hara, a classically-trained singer who could really hold the stage. Her New York star turn at Lincoln Center in The Light in the Piazza resulted in the first of six Tony nominations and a win down the road for The King and I.

The Light in the Piazza would run for 504 performances and won six Tony Awards and activated the careers of both Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara. Since Lincoln Center, this musical has found audiences all over the US, Japan, Australia and Canada. By 2008, opera companies were performing it as well.

The songs of Adam Guettel were more demanding than the standard musical theater fare of that era. As our new century turned, traditions from the last two decades of the twentieth century dominated in musicals demanding songs pretty much in the current vein of popular music. Guettel’s songs are largely necromantic with demanding and surprising harmonic moments.  Some of the lyrics are in Italian or accented English as many characters speak little English. This is a perfect challenge for opera groups.

The University of Illinois’ opera and musical training company, Lyric Theatre @ Illinois, will take on the challenges of The Light in the Piazza beginning on April 27. Dawn Harris will direct and Julie Jordan Gunn and Michael Tilley will handle the musical direction. Performances will run through the afternoon of April 30. For further information call the Krannert box office at—333-6280, or go to the Krannert website.

Coda:  Elizabeth Spencer’s mother is the great-aunt of Senator John McCain. 

Photo by Darrell Hoemann

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