Despite what I might've thought from the promotional art, the main character in The Light in the Piazza -- composer Adam Guettel's new musical currently in previews at Lincoln Center Theater -- is really the American mother guiding her daughter (of an initially indeterminate age) around the sights of post-war Florence and Rome. Like the changing nature of the metaphor in the title, her depth and complexity is slowly revealed as the sun arcs through the days of the play.
At first, your heart goes out to the innocent daughter as her wide-brimmed sun hat floats off magically on a gust of wind into the hands of a dashing young Italian. You silently hiss at the mother's insistence on thwarting any connection with the locals, ready to cast her as the usual domineering mother for whom no boy -- no matter how cultured and friendly and honest -- can ever be good enough. But then we hear and see the cracks in the mother's marriage and learn of a detail in her daughter's past that colors your first impressions of young love and aged wisdom. Guettel's music is not meant to be very hummable, but it's accomplished and gently powerful. (He is, by the way, the grandson of Broadway legend Richard Rodgers.) He gives some of the best lines of melody and most fraught lyrics to the mother, and your sympathy for her grows and starts to form around her.
The second act opens with a song that B. dubbed more akin to Guettel's previous works but which stuck out slightly from the light but nonetheless earnest scenes of the first act. After hearing many of the Italian characters sing and speak in their native tongue (without 100% translation), one of the characters opens the fourth wall and sings directly to the audience in English about what's going on. This technique brings the audience sharply back into the play, but then the action returns more to its original tone. Along the way, there is tension and release as we compare and contrast the American mother's distant husband with the young Italian suitor's father. Not all feelings are illuminated, but we see enough to carry the play forward.
The sets are duly resplendent, and I really loved a moment where the daughter strides in silhouette across the bright backdrop, and another where nuns and friars in period habits seem to flutter across the stage. The overall mood is one of very small but very beautiful human events happening after the violence of war. A kind of innocent joy and promise has returned, but while we do not see it, there also is a sense that things are again on the brink of changing, that the innocence will ebb away once more. The sun will set, perhaps, and when it rises again, the memory of the light will not match its reality the next morning.
It's in that window of unabashed hope (with time inevitably advancing) that the mother sings the closing number at the fringes of the ensemble. I was enjoying it all so much I barely stopped to realize that here the story would end and the musical would close. It's not a short show or a very complicated one, but it took me in and I didn't want it to end.
Today, I wished the tunes of the show had been more memorable. But like the light, they're hard to capture in the brain after experiencing them just once, and instead, I'm left remembering how much I liked being there in the auditorium watching the story happen before us.