I took in two other shows at the Shaw Festival, a pair of musicals, which between them made for a fine contrast between two ways of looking at the great American theatrical art form.
In its heyday, the American musical comedy was, like Shakespeare, both popular and high art of the highest order. Its music was among the most popular music in the world, and remains an enduring source of the “standards” that are the backbone of the jazz repertoire. Its stories, from Oklahoma! to The Music Man, told the story of America, a young country, and told that story using the oldest, most universal tropes in the book. But then changes in culture, technology and economics changed the place of the musical in American culture. Sondheim’s musicals were frequently not comedies, or were troubled ones if they were, interior and intellectual in their obsessions, and his music was famously impossible to sing. The British invasion took the musical in the opposite direction, with simplified pseudo-operatic music and spectacle-driven productions. And then came Disney, and the transformation of the stage musical into another medium for promoting branded properties.
I don’t mean to condemn Sondheim, whose work I often like very much, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, or even Disney. I’m just pointing out that the musical, and its place in American popular culture, has changed, irrevocably.
Now, as it happens, I believe we’re living through something of a renaissance of the musical form, but like all renaissances, it’s never the same as the first time. There’s an acute consciousness in contemporary musicals of the history of the form, and many of the best new musicals - The Book of Mormon, for example – are very self-aware in their appropriation of that history. These days, if you tell a story in the form of a classic musical comedy, part of what you’re saying is: hey, this story is the kind of thing you’d find in a classic musical comedy.
But what kinds of stories are those? And what happens when you have to tackle one of the classics – can you still see them for what they are, and play them straight?
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The Light In The Piazza, currently on at the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre, in a production directed by Jay Turvey, is an surreptitious exemplar of the impact of knowingness on the new American musical. On its surface, it’s a typical post-Sondheimian story, and told in a post-Sondheimian manner: witty lyrics, music that combines allusions to grand opera with modern lack of musical resolution. Set in the 1950s, the principal character is a mother, Margaret Johnson, on vacation in Italy with her twenty-something daughter, Clara, revisiting the places she went on her honeymoon before the war. The husband, Roy, is back home in Winston-Salem, a clear indication, confirmed later on, that their marriage has grown stale and cold, and that the mother now lives substantially through her daughter. Clara, meanwhile, effortlessly attracts the attentions of a young Italian man, Fabrizio, and she reciprocates enthusiastically. It falls to Margaret to try at first to prevent this budding romance from coming to full flower, before eventually relenting.
But the twist is the reason for the mother’s intervention. Clara, you see, isn’t entirely normal. She suffered a head injury on her twelfth birthday, and her cognitive development has not proceeded normally since then. While she has the body (and hormones) of a young woman, her apprehension of reality is arrested at a child’s level. Her Italian beau doesn’t realize this because he speaks almost no English.
Or is that really the reason? Fabrizio’s father, Signor Naccarelli, speaks reasonably good English, as does a sister-in-law, Franca, and while the whole Naccarelli family finds Clara thoroughly charming, nobody ever notices the increasingly obvious manifestations of her mental debility. The implication, not too-deeply hidden, is that these Italians are in closer touch with their most basic natures, and that Clara is as well; that their capacity to love (and to suffer from betrayals of love – all the Italian men are having affairs with other women) is tied to an emotional simplicity that is not so different from Clara’s, that Margaret and Roy have lost or, perhaps, never had the kind of love that Clara and Fabrizio have, because they knew too much, because they were real grownups.
Margaret never tells the Naccarellis about her daughter’s disability. And finally, the marriage goes ahead, and she leaves her daughter in Italy, singing a valedictory song about that beautiful clear (“clara”) light in the piazza of the title, a light she can see, but cannot, herself, shine.
It’s a beautiful piece, and I have a hard time imagining a production more likely than this one to persuade that this is ultimately a happy story, largely because of the exceptionally winning personalities of the two romantic leads, Jacqueline Thair as Clara and Jeff Irving as Fabrizio. Light really does seem to shine from Thair’s face, and Irving prances about in it like a young colt – they are, like the adolescent animals in “Bambi,” twitterpated. Patty Jamieson downplays Margaret’s fears for her daughter’s well-being, so that we can delude ourselves that all she’s really worried about is being found out, and the impropriety of deception. And Shawn Wright’s Roy similarly communicates distance, emotional and physical, but not genuine anger over Margaret’s irresponsibility. (Fabrizio’s family are played with more complex reserves of feeling and all four – Kelly Wong as the philandering older brother, Giuseppe, Kaylee Harwood as his feisty and frustrated wife, Franca, Juan Chioran as the patriarch and, especially, Julain Molnar as the eagle-eyed mother hen, Signora Naccarelli.) The intimacy of the Court House Theatre, which makes even this minimal set feel unnecessarily crowded, also brings us very close to the young lovers, and consequently to believe in their love, and the beautiful golden light in which everything is bathed (courtesy of lighting designer Andrew Smith), has the same effect on us as it apparently does on Margaret.
But even with the deck stacked in this way, the troubling nature of the story being told breaks through. Because Margaret is irresponsible; she does deceive her future in-laws. And her valedictory song only makes sense if she never plans to see her daughter again, but merely to carry away an image of her wedding as a symbol of a romantic happy-ending that she knows – she knows – is impossible.
I don’t think, though, that this is really a story about a woman with a disability, or love among the cognitively disabled. I know people with serious cognitive disabilities, like Downs Syndrome, who have loved, and even married, and a sweet simplicity of disposition cannot force reality to conform to its wishes. (If you want to see a much less-rosy depiction of that kind of love story, check out Daisy Foote’s Him.)
The Light in the Piazza was written (music and lyrics) by Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rogers, composer of many of the greatest American musicals of all time, including the most unabashedly romantic ones. (The book is by playwright Craig Lucas.) It is impossible for me to understand this play other than as part of a wrestling match with that grandfather’s legacy, with a quality of sentiment that feels inaccessible to the grandson unless framed within the radical difference of mind represented by both Clara and Fabrizio. This is a story about how, even at the time that the great American musical comedies were being written, to manifest the quality of love represented on the stage in real life would require you to be brain damaged. Or Italian. Or perhaps it merely seems like that to us now. For all its beauty, in the end this is a musical about the inability to write a classic musical, because we cannot authentically feel the way the lovers in Oklahoma! feel anymore. And that is very sad.
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So what if your task is to stage one of those classics? What’s your way in to this now-foreign emotional landscape? Modern productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel have often been inclined to focus on the shadows rather than the light, to make quasi anti-heroes of the likes of Judd Fry. Such an approach has even been tried with the more effervescent products of the classic era; I recall Des McAnuff’s disastrous Depression-era staging of Guys and Dolls on Broadway a few years ago.
If the Shaw Festival Theatre’s current staging of that perfect musical is any indication, the alternative to a dark and brooding approach is not sweetness and light but a wink and a nod. There’s a great deal of overlap between the casts of the festival’s two musicals, so I can feel confident that it was director Tadeusz Bradecki’s decision for nearly everyone to mug and ham every moment to the maximum. Now, it’s true, the characters in Guys and Dolls have a cartoon quality to them. Nobody would mistake these for real gangsters. But they have to think they are real. Even clowns have to take themselves seriously for us to laugh. As soon as they start saying, in effect, “hey kids – look how funny we are!” the laughter dies.
The most egregious offender is Shawn Wright, whose Nathan Detroit channels Chuck Jones, but without the anxieties or furious drive of his most-winning characters. But the disease infects almost the entire cast, from the gangsters to the Save Our Souls missionaries. Among the gangsters, the only one to make a virtue of the manic style is Thom Allison’s Nicely Nicely, who cleverly sings the show-stopper, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” as if he were improvising it on the spot, and learning to love the spotlight in the process.
Two performances actually manage to escape camp into a realm of genuine feeling. Jenny Wright’s Miss Adelaide is a delight, authentic and believable at her most outrageous. And Kyle Blair’s Sky Masterson, though rather light-weight for such a high roller, did capture the character’s ability to step back from a situation and observe, with amusement, the follies of humanity - or, as he falls in love with Sarah Brown, wonder at his own. Unfortunately, his opposite, Elodie Gillett, not only has no chemistry with him (a surprisingly common problem with productions of this show), she is too busy vamping to ever create a plausible character for him to fall in love with.
Meanwhile, strangely, all of this mugging plays out on a set that is remarkably dull, and around dance numbers that also struck me as somewhat lackluster. The set is supposed to resemble a black-and-white photo of the period, but instead of glossy glamour to me it just looked empty – and static (the set pieces do move, but on casters of molasses). And the bar fight in Havana barely registered as a fight, the crap game in the sewer barely conveyed the claustrophobia of the setting. The hot box numbers were the principal ones that, to me, registered any heat (along with Nicely’s triumphant number in the mission).
That the production is a hit may be a testament to the underlying unslayability of the show, or to those elements that did work – or, perhaps, I’m just off-base and people are happy to enjoy the show as a cartoon, and not much more. But I can’t help think how much more moving – and how much funnier – the show can be, when played with conviction.
And the fact is, there’s no reason it can’t be. Judd Apatow is still making millions telling stories about guys with some kinship to Nathan Detroit. The Salvation Army may be old hat, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone are doing quite well poking affectionate fun at another group of American missionaries.
The play is a classic because, for all that it is a kind of cartoon, it’s still a cartoon of reality. And reality endures.
The Light in the Piazza plays at the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake through October 13th. Guys and Dolls plays at the Festival Theatre through November 3rd.