Love Songs and Light Music

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The Young Turks of American musical theater all seem to be in Los Angeles this winter. Of course Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, and John Michael LaChiusa aren't that young anymore--they've all earned a few Tony nominations in the years since the New York Times anointed them Broadway's composers of the future back in the 1990's. The world premiere of Brown's new show, 13, is not until January; but last month saw the curtain rise on a new concoction by LaChiusa titled Hotel C'est l'Amour. It's billed as a "world premiere musical,"but that's a bit of a stretch; Hotel C'est l'Amour mostly features songs from LaChiusa's previous shows--along with a few new ditties as well.


It aspires to be more than just a revue, however; director Daniel Henning has selected only songs about love, and has stitched them together to tell a sort of wedding night fable. Everything takes place in a chic Mandarin-style hotel: a thousand-dollar-a-night room with a spiral staircase and a hot-tub discreetly hidden behind sliding rice-paper walls. The bride and groom, along with three other characters, who act variously as servants or temptations, sing about love, lust, and loss.

Sadly, too many of these songs sound a bit orphaned without their larger context--though Henning's showmanship always keeps the vignettes interesting. He stages each song to maximum dramatic effect, sometimes using odd juxtapositions (a song about Tom Sawyer becomes an ode to sexual curiosity) and sometimes just by letting the singers have at each other--there's more fully-clothed petting in Hotel C'est l'Amour than on a senior prom dance floor.

The quick, intemissionless show is well-packaged. At its best it resembles a small box of chocolates that you might find in lieu of a pillow mint at a really posh hotel. The problem is that the treats Hotel C'est l'Amour offer come courtesy of the talented young cast and Henning's winking stagecraft more than LaChiusa's music. Many of his numbers aim for clever analysis of modern relationships--like Steven Sondheim classics such as "We're Gonna Be All Right,"which shine in songbook shows like Side by Side by Sondheim. Too often LaChiusa's songs don't possess a similar stand-alone brilliance, which makes Hotel C'est l'Amour more revue than revelation.

Sondheim's "We're Gonna Be All Right"was written in collaboration with Richard Rogers for their 1965 show Do I Hear A Waltz?--a bland musical about an American woman in Venice. Forty years later, Rogers' more enduring creation--his grandson Adam Guettel--wrote the music and lyrics for The Light in the Piazza--a bland musical about an American woman in Florence.


Seeing Piazza in its opening weekend last year on Broadway, the show seemed far too refined and precious. It's neo-romantic score sounded like Samuel Barber-Lite and Bartlett Sher's direction suffocated the action with elegance and restraint. Last night, the road show of Piazza opened at the Ahmanson Theatre. The production looked more conventional on a proscenium stage and the acting was more exaggerated; but these changes still couldn't rescue The Light in the Piazza from its lofty, pastel-colored mediocrity.

A second listening to Guettel's score revealed a handful of pleasant melodies, namely the six-note title motif, but a second viewing of the plot proves more frustrating than the first. The main problem with the show is the story. Elizabeth Spencer's prosaic novella isn't great source material--it reads like second-rate E.M. Forster--but Guettel and playwright Craig Lucas have made no improvements. In Act II, a character says "without risk there is no drama." One wishes the creators would have listened. Everything in Piazza is so tasteful and safe; it plays like a leisure magazine set to music. Exacerbating the problem is the cavernous Ahmanson stage, which flatters Michael Yeargan's grand, Florentine sets, but dwarfs the minimal drama flickering on stage.

The Light in the Piazza runs at the Ahmanson through December 10; The Blank Theatre Company's Hotel C'est l'Amour closes this Sunday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.