London Theatre Review: The Light in the Piazza at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall

Posted on 27 June 2019

On the face of it, The Light in the Piazza playing at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre is a glossy Hollywood-style 1950s musical rom-com. It ticks all the boxes; a great set, gorgeously stylish costumes and shiny happy people. Even the lighting reflects the hyper-real light that exists in the Mediterranean, which makes colours pop and everyone and everything look and feel spectacular.

Initially, it seems that The Light in The Piazza is the epitome of the La Dolce Vita with a soaring, romantic musical score and operatic songs sung perfectly. Boy meets girl, they fall in love and, because the course of true love never did run smooth, there are misunderstandings and obstacles preventing them from being together. So far, so clichéd. Hold on though, very early on it is clear that all is not what it seems. 

The Light in the Piazza synopsis

The ‘girl’ is Dove Cameron as Clara, a young woman in her twenties on holiday in Florence with her mother. As her mother, Margaret Johnson, played by Renee Fleming, notes Clara is not like other American girls. Rather obliquely, Mrs Johnson refers to Clara being very young and naïve for her age. Mrs Johnson is not infantilising Clara, she does have a child-like innocence and literal outlook on life. Like a young child, or a teenager, Clara wants everything her own way; she demands instant gratification and doesn’t seem to have any worries. Clara’s childishness is reflected in Dove Cameron’s trilling singing style. There are a few incidents along the way that give strong hints that, at the very least, Clara is not neurotypical. We later discover that as a result of an accident when she was 12, Clara suffered brain damage, resulting in her learning disabilities. As this story is set in the 1950s and focused on an upper middle class, wealthy American family, although she is aware that she is unlike other women her age, Clara is never directly informed. Her mother and father cover up as much as they can, with the best of intentions. 

The songs and performances

The Light in the Piazza is loaded with sumptuous music and song. The opening number, set in Florence, ‘Statues and Stories’ is deliciously frothy and joyful with humorous asides. Clara’s solo in ‘The Beauty Is’ is a chirpy operatic song, which showcases Cameron’s cheerful soprano vocals, reflecting Clara’s optimism and carefree nature. 

‘Il Mondo Era Vuoto’ is the first opportunity we have to hear Rob Houchen’s extensive and powerful vocal Tenor range, as Fabrizio, I love his voice.   As expected, Renee Fleming is perfect as Mrs Johnson, with her quick-witted one-liners, slight cynicism, hope and gravity. Her vocals are delightful;  powerful or soft and gentle when needed. The lullaby she sings to Clara to soothe her is lovely. Fleming’s rendition of ‘Dividing Day’ is poignant. In ‘American Dancing’ Houchen’s Fabrizio, Liam Tamne as his brother Giuseppe and Alex Jennings as their father Signor Naccerelli, provide a light, humorous interlude. ‘Aiutami’ in Act II, comprising the Naccarelli family, is cleverly done, interweaving lines and voices culminating in a stereotypical full-scale Italian family row.

The interaction between the prospective lovers Fabrizio and Clara is very funny as he grapples with English in Passeggiata, it is also very sweet and innocent. ‘Say it Somehow’ is a tender duet between Fabrizio and Clara which highlights how their voices complement each other with their gorgeous harmonies, however, there are undertones of danger in the music signposting that something is wrong. Cameron’s voice is like a songbird in  ‘The Light in the Piazza,’ full of yearning. ‘Love To Me’ is a sentimental love song sung by Fabrizio in response to Clara telling him there is something wrong with her. From Fabrizio’s perspective, all he sees are her positive qualities which have made him love her. What about when Clara is distressed and overloaded with emotions and thoughts that she is unable to manage? Will Fabrizio still find her endearing?

The Light in The Piazza is a charming, entertaining, witty and often frothy musical and can be enjoyed on that level. There are some funny one-liners and asides, neatly expressed by Clara’s mother. The musical numbers are luscious and the production is very elegant with a lot of comedy. Nevertheless, the plot twist for this traditional Hollywood-style musical has depth and is very 21st Century. Previous iterations of star crossed lovers have dealt with: rivalries between family dynasties; differences in class, religion and/or race; reactions to same-sex relationships. Is learning disability the latest in a series of obstacles faced by lovers? There are not many romantic musicals of this kind that have a heroine who is learning disabled.  Arguably the real heroine is Mrs Johnson as she struggles to balance protecting her daughter with enabling Clara to have the opportunity and freedom to lead a happy and fulfilling life, which Fleming hauntingly conveys in ‘The Beauty Is (Reprise).’ 

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Sandra Howell

By Sandra Howell

Since I was a child and now as an adult, I have loved performing, as an amateur, in choirs and the theatre. As a theatre goer my tastes are broad, I relish musical theatre and dance.  I am passionate about plays by a huge range of writers. I am excited by the wide variety of contemporary plays which entertain, challenge and make me feel deeply.

10 years after a life-threatening road traffic collision left me disabled, I retired from working as a National Officer of a trade union. In recent years, I have been inspired to write short fiction after attending creative writing courses. In 2017, I began writing theatre reviews and I am thrilled by the opportunities to combine two of my loves: live theatre and writing.