BWW Review: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Dazzles at Front Porch
One of the finer points of the critic's job, which can lead to pleasures or torments depending on situation, is the ability to separate one's critique of the written material from one's critique of the performance and production itself. When I initially heard that a local theatre was doing The Light in the Piazza, my first instinct had been to avoid it entirely. Seeing the Broadway production left me cold, and performing large segments of the show's score in vocal recitals through my college years did nothing to change my mind. You can say my tastes run towards the middlebrow, and you might be partially right, but I always found Adam Guettel's musical romance a dry, dour exercise in compositional skill over heart. Not much light in that particular Piazza, you might say. Thankfully, local director Stephen Santa has a knack for bringing humanity and joy to tricky pieces of modernist musical theatre (see also his production of Next to Normal last spring), and he has again worked his magic in the Pittsburgh area. I may not particularly like The Light in the Piazza as a work on its own, but I genuinely loved the Front Porch Theatricals production, showcased in the New Hazlett Theatre.
Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson (a masterful Becki Toth), an American woman in the 1950s, abroad for a holiday with her daughter Clara (Lindsay Bayer), a blithe spirit bordering on Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. Clara meets the young Italian Fabrizio Naccarelli (Joshua Grosso), and sparks fly. There are, of course, obstacles: Fabrizio barely speaks English, Clara speaks no Italian, Margaret has another town to move on to, and the Naccarelli family is more than a little bit dysfunctional. These are relatively simple hurdles to overcome, at least when compared to the secret Margaret has kept from Clara her whole life (but more or less reveals to the audience by the end of the first scene): Clara is, if not mentally handicapped, at least in a state of arrested social development after an accident when she was twelve. Again and again, men have fallen for the charming and beautiful Clara, not realizing that she may be more girl than woman. Complications ensue when Margaret decides she must reveal this secret to the Naccarellis, a difficulty made worse by the language barrier between them.
Despite her character being precariously balanced between the protagonist and antagonist roles, Becki Toth navigates an incredibly difficult role with aplomb as Margaret. She wrings an arch, almost camp, sense of Southern humor out of Margaret's monologues, giving us a woman painfully aware of her own inadequacies and the absurdities of being an American abroad, a mother and a wife. Any casting director at Piazza, upon seeing Toth's performance, would immediately have thought to cast her as Blanche DuBois. Her singing is just as powerful as her acting, as she slips between operatic and belted modes seamlessly, especially in "Fable," the closing number. The young lovers also more than acquit themselves of their difficult material. Joshua Grosso's pop-opera tone blows Matthew Morrison in the Broadway cast out of the water, bringing a touch of Josh Groban's classical-inflected but still mainstream lyricism to the tricky role of Fabrizzio in a way "Ol' Butt-Chin" of GLEE fame never did. Lindsay Bayer, a veteran of Santa's previous Next to Normal, handles the musical theatre sections of the music better than the operatic, but truly tears the roof off in her Sondheim-inspired "Tirade" at the climax of Act 2. Craig Lucas's book for the musical is intentionally vague about exactly what mental impairment Clara has, or even if she genuinely does have one, but between Bayer's portrayal and Santa's direction, Bayer gives one of the finest portrayals of Asperger's Syndrome this side of Parenthood on NBC. Sometimes completely well adjusted and sometimes childish and inappropriate, sometimes aloof and sometimes almost obsessively attuned, Clara experiences two attacks of anxiety and overstimulation which are genuinely terrifying to behold.
The Naccarelli family provide much of the piece's comic relief- a difficult task, considering that almost all of their dialogue is in untranslated Italian with no subtitles, even when they are alone with each other. Luckily, Santa has assembled a great quartet of character actors whose realistic yet slightly larger-than-life (or maybe just slightly Italian) body language and vocal tones makes their every thought relatively clear. Jeff Howell's Signor Naccarelli brings a wry, Continental charm to a character that could come off as too stern or too sleazy if not played with genuine warmth and affection, and Cynthia Harding nearly steals the show in her few fourth-wall breaking moments as Naccarelli's quiet but all-seeing wife. Rounding out the family are Antonia Botti-Lodovico and Patrick Cannon as Franca and Giuseppe Naccarelli, a young and oft-feuding married couple. Botti-Lodovico, an opera singer in her first musical theatre lead, brings both a sense of class and a sexy insouciance to the flirtatious but embittered Franca. Her husband Giuseppe, the black sheep of the family, is the musical's only purely comic role, and Cannon's expressive face, loose-limbed body and basso growl of a speaking voice strongly recall comedian Bill Hader in one of his chameleonic character roles.
Due to the chamber-opera quality of the material, the four-person ensemble is a mostly silent presence, and only Jeremy Kuharcik as an Italian priest has any lines. Rather, the quartet serve literally as scenery, moving the hollow panels of Bryce Cutler's minimalist scenic design and becoming elements of the set more often than appearing as actual present humans. They sometimes seem at odds with themselves- slightly more than stage crew, but slightly less than performers. Perhaps the closest parallel is to the supernumeraries of the opera world, an artistic tradition that this musical clearly aspires to. Composer Adam Guettel's music is cerebral more than melodic, and the songs are much more akin to arias or art songs than they are to musical theatre pieces. The score, no matter how beautifully sung or acted, draws attention to itself and its own intricate composition, which keeps Piazza from becoming too Hallmark-movie sentimental, but denies catharsis. The quintet of musicians led by Camille Villalpando Rolla provide a delicate but full-bodied musical accompaniment, with the harp as the second lead instrument, a rarity in musical theatre.
The Light in the Piazza is not a musical for everyone- its sophistication and musical complexity make other operatic-leaning musicals like West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables sound like a bar band by comparison. It's not a show I would offer a new girl on a first date, nor a show I would recommend to my theatre-loving but mainstream parents- hell, it's not even a show I would seek out on my own. But perhaps that's changed after seeing Stephen Santa's production. One bad experience with caviar can turn you off to caviar forever, but a good experience with it later can show you that you may have been wrong.. and Front Porch Theatricals just served up some good, good caviar.