BWW Reviews: Portland Playhouse's THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Is a Quiet Masterpiece
I was recently working with a group of young actors who love musicals, in particular Les Miserables. and some of them were prone to belting out songs from that show at random intervals. And while I can remember being a young Broadway fan myself, given to the occasional belting frenzy, as I've hit (ahem) middle age I find myself drawn to the quieter shows, the ones that illuminate emotion with small gestures and intimate songs. She Loves Me comes to mind, and Falsettos, and of course The Last Five Years.
Now I have to add The Light in the Piazza to that list of quiet masterpieces. I'd been exposed to the show before, through the cast album and a PBS taping of the original Broadway production, but for some reason it didn't grab me. Tonight it did, and I'm still emotionally overwhelmed from the performance at Portland Playhouse.
Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson and her daughter, Clara, who leave Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1953 to visit Florence, Italy. Clara is "a special child," as her mother says; an injury at the age of twelve has left her with the mind and emotions of a pre-adolescent in the body of a woman in her mid-twenties. Clara loves to draw, but she isn't all that interested in the artwork in Florence; she meets a young Italian named Fabrizio who is drawn to her Southern charm and innocence, and she is taken with him as well. Margaret opposes the romance but can't bring herself to tell Fabrizio and his family of Clara's issues.
The show sneaks up on you. Craig Lucas's book begins as a comedy, and at first I thought Fabrizio might be some kind of charlatan, but the emotions are real, and gradually everyone around the young couple is affected and changed by witnessing their love. Adam Guettel's score is musically complex, but performed here with just a piano and a bass (the program listed four pieces, but the show I saw was accompanied by just two), the feelings came to the forefront and the singers (unamplified, thank heaven) were able to soar.
And did they soar! The entire cast of thirteen sang with pure feeling, and the rafters rang with their astonishing voices. Director Brian Weaver kept the show simple (I keep using that word, but it's the only word that will do, and I mean it here as an enormous compliment), with no set to get in the way. Scenic designer Daniel Meeker gave us a marble floor, a ceiling covered with frescos, and used the Playhouse's stained glass window to great effect. The ensemble moved a few pieces around to create the story's locations, and the audience sat on three sides of the actors, who moved effortlessly in and out of the action as the story dictated.
All of the ensemble actors were outstanding, and all those playing Italians looked and sounded Italian. I must single out David Meyers, who played Fabrizio's father; his character began as a stereotypical father figure but revealed hidden depths as the story went on.
Michael Morrow Hammack, as Fabrizio, was excellent throughout, portraying a young man in love for the first time with fervor and passion, and singing some of Guettel's most difficult arias with glorious ease - and much of it in Italian yet.
Susannah Mars is the queen of Portland musical theater, of course, and she finds humor and heart in Margaret. At first she seems to be there for comic purposes; for most of the first half of the show she has nothing to sing and makes bitchy asides to the audience in Margaret's Southern accent. But as the story grows, Margaret's feelings change, and we learn more about her marriage. As she watches her daughter fall in love, she questions her own choices, and Mars deepens and enriches her character until we are totally in her spell by the end of the performance.
Merideth Kaye Clark, as Clara, is just plain astonishing. I've seen her several times around Portland, and no one gives off the joy of performance like she does. Even when Clara is devastated, and Clark is singing her heart out, you can tell that this young actress is grateful to be giving pleasure to audiences. Clara is a difficult role; you can't play her too slow or the audience won't approve of her romance, but you can't make her too clever or her emotional outbursts don't make sense. Clark finds a perfect balance and makes you love and feel for Clara.
I can't imagine a better production of a difficult play. Hats off to Brian Weaver and everyone at Portland Playhouse for tackling this elaborate musical, stripping it down to simple human emotions, and filling it with pure feeling. I left the theater wanting to hug everyone there. I still do.