The Light in the Piazza, Southbank Centre

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by Amy Toledano

Based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Spencer and published more than 60 years ago, The Light in the Piazza is a surprisingly progressive tale for its time. Finding acclaim with the 1962 film adaptation starring George Hamilton and Olivia Havilland, this story made a lasting impression on the likes of Richard Rogers, who was one of many composers looking to adapt it for the stage. Unfortunately, it was not until 1998, when Rogers’ grandson approached Spencer about giving the adaptation another go. From this, the version we see on stage was born, to great success.

It tells the story of an American mother and daughter on vacation in Florence, Italy, where the pair find themselves in the same piazza that Margaret (Renée Fleming) had spent time in with her husband many years before. Her daughter Clara (Dove Cameron) is completely enthralled in this new city, the people and the history is all so new to her and she is smitten. So too is the handsome Fabrizio (Rob Houchen), a local boy taken in the same way by Clara, after seeing her for the first time in this same piazza. But as the relationship between the young couple begins to blossom, so too does Margaret’s fear at not being able to protect her daughter. Clara, while a young woman of twenty-six, suffered an accident when she was twelve that left her unable to mentally develop at the same rate as other children her age.

But as the world seems to be against this young romance, Margaret comes to realise that love is more important than any kind of disability, and that all people deserve to live a full and rich life. The show ends as beautifully as it begins, with a feeling of hope and wonder.

Performances are wonderful all around, Disney star Dove Cameron has an angelic tone that matches her beautiful portrayal of Clara, and her chemistry with Rob Houchen sizzles throughout. Opposite her, Renée Fleming plays Margaret so delicately and tenderly that even when she appears cold, the warmth of her intention and love for her daughter shines through. The Naccarelli family are a great unit, with dynamics between Alex Jennings and Marie McLaughlin as the heads of this family is brilliant, and the fire between eldest son Giueseppe (Liam Tamne) and his wife Franca (Celinde Schoenmaker), who gives a particularly strong performance that is not far from Anita in West Side Story. Vocally, Rob Houchen is the standout, with his dreamy baritone sound bellowing throughout the space and bringing a real meatiness to the boyishly charming role.

The staging is smart, and the ensemble fill the space with energy and life. All the characters are clear and concise, and the orchestra are fantastic, breathing life into this incredible and complex score. The clever writing launches you directly into the Italian sunshine, as while all scenes including the Margaret and Clara are spoken in English, all of the Naccarelli scenes are spoken only in Italian which gives such an authentic and lovely gift to the audience, and is a credit to the actors in these roles. Led by Kimberly Grigsby, the orchestra, along with the actors and fantastic creative team, create an atmosphere that will leave you longing for your own Italian holiday romance.

The Light in the Piazza runs through 5 July in London.

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