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LA Opera Goes Broadway and Americans Abroad Go Italiano

Ed Rampell: This love story about an American mother and daughter, Margaret Johnson and Clara, visiting Florence has a unique twist: Clara is developmentally challenged.
Light in the Piazza

Dove Cameron as Clara (Craig T. Mathews)

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Opera Review

LA Opera’s latest star-studded production, The Light in the Piazza, is a version of the musical that opened on Broadway in 2005, based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer. This love story about an American mother and daughter, Margaret Johnson (legendary Renée Fleming) and Clara (Disney actress Dove Cameron), visiting Florence has a unique twist: Clara is developmentally challenged. While in Italy she falls in love with the Florentine Fabrizio Naccarelli (English actor Rob Houchen, a Les Mis co-star of a West End show production), son of a shopkeeper (two-time Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell and Tony-nommed in 1998 for Ragtime; Mitchell’s film/TV work includes playing Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku in the 1999 TV-movie Too Rich).

This love story about an American mother and daughter, Margaret Johnson and Clara, visiting Florence has a unique twist: Clara is developmentally challenged.

As every viewer of Orpheus, Oedipus Rex, Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story and Harlequin romance reader knows, an essential ingredient in concocting the elixir of a love story is that there must be an obstacle preventing the lovers from being together and/or consummating their all-consuming amour. In Piazza that hurdle is not death, marrying your parent or warring gangs. The relationship that grows between Clara and Fabrizio is complicated by their different cultural backgrounds and lack of a common language (although the latter can help reduce the chitchat and cut to the sexual chase). Although contemporary audiences, who are bombarded with commercials of multi-culti partners are passé about such couplings, in 1960 when this story was published (and judging by factors such as Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s period dress, I suspect the current stage version takes place in the early sixties) inter-ethnic dating was taboo.

Rob Houchen (center), Liam Tamne, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marie McLaughlin, and Celinde Schoenmaker. (Craig T. Mathew/ @mathewimaging)

Rob Houchen (center), Liam Tamne, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marie McLaughlin, and Celinde Schoenmaker. (Craig T. Mathew/ @mathewimaging)

But this is not Clara and Fabrizio’s main impediment. Nor is the requirement for Clara to convert to Catholicism or the fact, when it comes out, that Clara is six years Fabrizio’s senior. No, not even Fabrizio’s sister-in-law Franca’s (Holland’s Celinde Schoenmaker) flirting with him is the biggest barrier between Clara and Fabrizio’s union.

Rather, it is that Clara is a “special needs” person. While Margaret at first just seems like one of those annoying cock blocks, it turns out that she’s actually a concerned mother doing her best to watch out for a daughter with an intellectual disability. Fleming proves herself to be a gifted actress, as well as one of the world’s greatest lyric sopranos, in her portrayal of Margaret - is she a helicopter mom or just a protective parent? And does Clara’s special need include the need to love?

In the titular piazza (with a stunning set by scenery designer Robert Jones, a Royal Shakespeare Company associate artist) at Florence amidst a Vespa scooter zipping around onstage stand statues of nude men, which the American Clara from Winston-Salem, North Carolina marvels at. Can it be that she also has a special need for sex? And is the developmentally challenged device actually a metaphor for sexual repression? Inquiring minds (and genitals) want to know.

There is much dialogue (which in conventional operas would be called “recitative”) in between this show’s musical numbers, although they are played by a full orchestra under the baton of Kimberly Grigsby, whose numerous Great White Way credits include Piazza. This also requires more acting per se than most traditional operas, that are more reliant on singing, and the renowned Renée proves to be as good an actress as Hollywood’s Rhonda Fleming ever was. Caught in what may be a loveless marriage, Margaret too has her own needs and Ms. Fleming evinces an affinity for the Beatles’ philosophy of “All you need is love.”

I’d be remiss not to single Scottish soprano Marie McLaughlin out for praise for her breakout number as Signora Naccarelli, who injects some deliciously suspicious, “malicious” levity into what is overall a drama.

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For some reason I can’t figure out, there was a movie vogue of Americans abroad going Italian in the early sixties. This cinematic trend may have been kicked off by William Wyler’s 1953 Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, who scored the Best Actress Oscar, while the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo posthumously won the Best Writing Academy Award. Other examples of this motion picture trend include:

The Warren Beatty/Vivien Leigh 1961 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which was remade in 2003 co-starring Helen Mirren and Anne Bancroft (and no, her husband Mel Brooks did NOT play the gigolo!).

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George Hamilton played Fabrizio, Olivia de Havilland played “Meg”, Yvette Mimieux played Clara and Rossano Brazzi played Signor Naccarelli in 1962’s screen adaptation of Piazza. Troy Donahue starred the same year in Rome Adventure, which likewise featured Rossano Brazzi (I guess he was a "professional Italian" - although in South Pacific he portrayed a Frenchman).

And lest we forget, California’s favorite surfer “chick” went Italian in 1963’s Gidget Goes to Rome.

Renee Fleming and Dove Cameron

Renee Fleming and Dove Cameron

Director Daniel Evans’ production of Piazza premiered last June at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The UK helmer displays a deft sensibility in the version at the Dorothy Chandler, which includes some Fellini-esque touch. But the best part of this show is getting to see and hear Mitchell and the mellifluous Ms. Fleming - who was so great a while ago as Blanche in LA Opera’s mounting of the operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire - back at the Chandler. What a treat!

To paraphrase the Four Tops: “DON’T walk away Renée”!

LA Opera’s The Light in the Piazza is being performed 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 18 and Saturday, Oct. 19 and at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19 and Sunday, Oct. 20 at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. For more info: (213)972-8001; https://www.laopera.org/performances/201920-season/the-light-in-the-piazza/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

The third edition of“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .