James and Forster were on my mind while I was watching The Light in the Piazza, a musical currently running at Portland Playhouse. The show is about an American mother and daughter on vacation in Italy; the mother clutches her Baedeker as she roams through Florence's cathedrals, just like Charlotte Barlett.
But Piazza, which is based on a 1960 novella of the same name, doesn't seem particularly aware of these antecedents—even though certain plot elements would much funnier and more coherent if they were intended to be referential.
In Piazza, given an optimistic staging by Portland Playhouse, our fresh-faced young heroine, Clara, quickly falls in love-at-first-sight with a pretty Italian boy, Fabrizio—but there's a problem. Clara, though she appears to be a cheerful, eligible young woman, in is fact broken—she was kicked in the head by a pony as a girl, forever arresting her emotional and physical development. Her mother, Margaret, has spent years guarding Clara's secret and keeping the boys at bay, but the language barrier in Florence masks Clara's condition, Reeta Leeds-style, and Fabrizio's enthusiastic attentions prove hard to thwart.
It's cute, sure, but I got a little fixated on the whole pony-head-kick thing. That conjures up more literary references for me, to the kind of kids' books they don't really make anymore: What Katy Did, about a rowdy girl who calms down after a rope swing accident (?); Heidi, about a crippled girl who learns to walk thanks to fresh air and milk (?; never trust a boy named Peter). There's a whole slew of 19th-century children's books where illness and injury force a character to overcome a moral weakness; that's where "kicked in the head by a pony" belongs, in a literary milieu where mental and physical health are mixed up in some pretty fundamentally nonsensical ways. In a romance that I'm supposed to invest in emotionally? Not so much. Because seriously, that's very dumb
But Portland Playhouse's ensemble is lively, as the American-in-Italy thing plays out in a flurry of street scenes and museum visits; the costumes are excellent, and there's lots of pretty "Ahh"-ing that reminded me of the part in The Little Mermaid where Ursula steals Ariel's voice. The principals are terrific, too, particularly Susannah Mars as Margaret, Clara's tough but weary mother, struggling to decide what's best for her kid. Margaret is the one character in this show I actually believed in, as she fretted on the sidelines of her daughter's exploits—it was sort of like watching Margaret watch a musical, seeing her world-weary take on the light and color and fun all around her.
As Clara, Merideth Kaye Clark is sunny and appealing, and while love interest Michael Morrow Hammack's voice doesn't quite match his charm—well, he's pretty charming. Jennifer Goldsmith and Drew Harper do yeoman's work in predominantly Italian-speaking roles, trying to make their courting and squabbling coherent to the audience. (At first it's novel that some songs are in untranslated Italian; then it's just kind of boring, because untranslated Italian.) And, of course, much credit to musicians Tyson Bickle, Liz Byrd, Eric Nordin, and Eva Richey.
This one falls into the "See it if you like musicals" category—if you do, you might forgive the pony thing, and the Italian thing, and the fact that there are a few more songs strictly necessary, and instead you'll remember the catchy title refrain, and how funny and wise Mars' performance is. If musicals aren't really your bag, though, this won't make a convert of you—the story's not strong enough for that.