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BWW Reviews: South Coast Rep Stages Lovely OC Production of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA

Ah, destino.

Sometimes, there's just no fighting what the universe has in store, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart.

Yes, destiny---and the surprises that tag along with it---is exactly the troubling test that ignites some trepidation and nervousness from one of musical theater's most protective moms (though, perhaps, not in quite the same league as Gypsy's mama, of course). So what happens when happenstance intervenes, throwing plans, dreams, and expectations out the window, thereby forcing an overprotective mother to learn to let go?

Truly one of the most elegant, though underrated musicals of the new century, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA---now on stage in a lovely new production at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through February 23---follows the uneasy journey that a loving, though over-hovering mother must embark on when her daughter discovers the wonderfully vulnerable world of adult love.

Nearly a decade after its original Broadway debut at Lincoln Center, director Kent Nicholson has conjured up a newfound vibrancy for SCR's admirable local production. Here, he deftly helms a revival that reveals more beguiling humor and heartbreaking sorrow out of Craig Lucas' book and Adam Guettel's music and lyrics to go along with its beautiful displays of statues and still life (both literally and figuratively).

It's not a stretch to say that this Tony Award-winning musical certainly has its fans (myself included), yet, understandably, it hasn't exactly elicited the kind of rabid fandom other shows that were birthed in the same era have garnered. That's really too bad---because what THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA lacks in bells and whistles and dizzying effects, it makes up for in its sweeping, lush score and its simple, yet heartwarmingly relatable story about a mother and daughter and the handsome stranger that enters their life.

Set in the summer of 1953, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA---based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer---introduces us to Margaret Johnson (played with quiet ferocity by Patti Cohenour) a wealthy American Southerner on vacation with her beautiful daughter Clara (the exquisite Erin Mackey) in the gorgeous surroundings of Florence, Italy (which Clara, unencumbered by pesky filters, refers to as the "land of naked marble boys"). With one eye on her trusty guidebook and the other on her dreamy-eyed daughter, Margaret is adamant about making the trip both an educational and trouble-free escape---an appealing distraction for the pair.

But from the get-go, signs point to the fact that Margaret has devised a force-field around Clara. It seems strange at first; why would this mom be so ultra-protective of her grown-up daughter? As it turns out, she has her reasons: you see, Clara---as Margaret herself explains via several direct-to-the-audience asides---is quite "special." Many years before, at a very young age, Clara was involved in an unfortunate accident that caused some irreparable brain damage. The trauma has left Clara with a child-like innocence---and the irrational behavior and immature mentality that comes with it.

As apparently difficult as it already is for Margaret to keep watch over her fragile daughter, along comes a young hunk of man to introduce some extra complications. Like a stroke of kismet, Clara---while exploring one of Florence's beautiful piazzas with her mom---loses her hat during a gust of wind. Luckily (or is it?), a handsome young Italian local named Fabrizio (the dashing David Burnham) has been admiring the young lady from afar and, like a lovestruck hero, swoops in and rescues Clara's chapeau and hands it back to her safely. And just like that, they lock eyes and both fall instantly in love.

Understandably, Margaret isn't too thrilled about these new circumstances. Thus, her dilemma: does she continue protecting her daughter from the harshness of the world, thereby shattering Clara's feeble heart in the process, or should she finally just let Clara go so that her own daughter can feel the glorious possibilities of love for herself?

A beautifully-rendered, unabashedly romantic musical with appropriately little fanfare, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is one of those musicals that eschews any real danger or any evil-battling predicaments, yet still manages to present a very real quandary that can elicit empathy and thoughtfulness from an audience. While peril at the hands of a sinister entity certainly doesn't play a part in the musical, the conflict at hand---though quite a very thin one---is witnessing a long-suffering mother and her instinctual need to keep protecting a daughter she deems too fragile to be left to her own devices, let alone fall in love and sustain a livelihood with someone "normal."

Though genuinely protective out of pure love, Margaret's motives also feel like a self-imposed martyrdom, in which her penance is to be Clara's constant defender---as if it was this mom's sole purpose in the world. Then again, who else can protect her? It's certainly not going to be Margaret's husband back in America, who's a distant, almost unfeeling figure as a spouse let alone as a father. Margaret, clearly, is no stranger to having hurt feelings herself---so it only makes sense that she would assume someone like Clara wouldn't be as strong about handling difficulties as her mother has been.

In a way, Margaret's affinity for classical antiquities---the finer things in history preserved in a condition that retains its purity and perceived beauty---is no accidental character quirk. It's a very not-so-subtle reflection of her own ideals for her daughter Clara, as well as her own longing for what a beautiful life can truly be.

Later, when Margaret finally allows an open mind when it comes to Fabrizio's courtship of her daughter, new obstacles arise. Suddenly, her fear for Clara's safety morphs into panic over how Clara herself will be able to handle being part of a "normal' adult relationship with another man. Has she prepared Clara enough? Will Clara know how to handle herself without her mother there to explain things? Is Fabrizio's family going to be okay with someone like Clara to be so ensconced in their lives? Yeah, that's a lot to ponder.

Despite my own assertion that the show's book still feels a bit frail, something I absolutely loved about SCR's treatment of the story is how it handles the Naccarellis---Fabrizio's family. Going beyond any previous productions I've seen of this show, the colorful family is so much more lively and funnier in Nicholson's remounting, as if their body language has suddenly been amped up even more, and now speaks volumes. Their interactions, though still entirely spoken in Italian, suddenly show glimmers of gloriously-layered translation.

In its own way, the language barrier isn't seen as a hinderance here, and, in a sense, the non-English dialogue serves to highlight the universality of body language, contextual foreshadowing, and, most importantly, truth-telling facial expressions. To watch the expressions on Fabrizio's face is to see the look of love, and whew does he have it bad for Clara. The same can be said for Fabrizio's family---who interchangeably go from pride, to ridicule, to joy, and to empathy. Their passionate speeches seem so much more decipherable with the aid of gestures, no?

So, sure, THE LIGHT IN PIAZZA presents such dilemmas and human insecurities in an interesting way, but I'm still not quite sure whether the melodramatic narrative itself has been fully realized to its deepest potential. Thankfully, the simple story is fashioned around one of the loveliest scores that didn't come from a Sondheim or a Rodgers or even a Hammerstein (though, coincidentally, the guy who wrote the songs happens to be Richard Rodgers' grandson). From the ethereal, mesmerizing opening, to Fabrizio's explosive expressions of love and joy, to Margaret's soul-baring, tear-jerking finale, Guettel's Tony-winning songbook for THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is absolutely the show's best asset.

Shying away from the modern, rock-and-pop-skewing sounds of current Broadway shows, Guettel opted instead for a new-century revisionist take on opera and classical music. The results are stunningly breathtaking and thankfully the cast assembled for the production are uniformly outstanding and are resolutely able to take on such challenging compositions.

And for its lovely revival, SCR has smartly recruited a pair of actors from the original Broadway production---Coheneur, who reprises Margaret, a role she portrayed as an alternate in the original Lincoln Center production; and Burnham who once again dons Fabrizio's slacks after spending time understudying the role on Broadway, then taking on the role full-time for the show's first national tour. Both are perfect in the show.

As Margaret, Coheneur gives her role a regal grace and immovable dignity that is impressive to watch from start to finish. Her character's nuances are distinguishable and her voice, particularly when she sings to the stratosphere, are such emotional touch-points for the musical (and, yeah, I admit---she got me teary-eyed during her final song).

Still looking (and sounding) very much like the strapping young 20-year-old (!) Fabrizio he played in the Broadway and national tours of this very same musical, Burnham is without a doubt a precious gem of a musical theater actor. Not only is he an incredible singer, he's quite a charming actor as well. He can be goofy and adorkable one moment then passionate and dashing the next---so, yeah, it's no wonder Clara fell so hard for the guy. His full belt-tastic voice effortlessly soars on the joyous "Passeggiata" that we too are easily seduced. Personally, I can't really picture anyone else in the role ever again.

For the part of Clara, Margaret's "special" daughter, SCR found former Glinda (and OC native) Mackey to fill in her shoes, and, gosh, what a magnificent find! Aside from a beautiful, heavenly singing voice, Mackey unleashes an uncompromising portrait of a mind-challenged young woman that is profoundly intense yet remarkably eloquent. It's a challenging role, to say the least, having to juggle such erratic switches in mood and delivery---and Mackey does it with extraordinary poise.

Also worth applauding: the terrific supporting cast comprised of Perry Ojeda (Fabrizio's father), Mary Gutzi (Fabrizio's mother, who gets her own laugh-riot segment), Christopher Newell (Fabrizio's brother, Giuseppe), Melina Kalomas (Giuseppe's bombshell wife Franca), and Martin Kildare (Margaret's briefly-present husband Roy).

SCR, who, thankfully, seems to be mounting more musicals (please do Grey Gardens next!), have also assembled a brilliant creative team for its production of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. Michael K. Hooker's sound design has found a rich balance between un-amplified spoke dialogue and mic-projected singing vocals. Dennis Castellano's musical direction provided such orchestral beauty from in-house band.

Leah Piehl's authentically period costume designs framed by Lap Chi Chu's lighting schemes and Neil Patel's sets truly evoke the romanticism of 1950's Florence---a lovely mash-up of traditional classics and new-world La Dolce Vita. However, my only real gripe about the near-perfect production is the use of an upstage "building" facade erected to house the show's in-house orchestra. The structure---always in plain sight in the back of the set---feels like such a disconnect with the more Florence-ish columns and statues that come in and out of the stage (unfortunately, all it reminded me of are the windows that adorn the vintage animation buildings at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank). Luckily, it wasn't such a lingering distraction, thanks to the loveliness happening downstage.

Overall, SCR's buoyant production of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is definitely worth a visit, particularly if you had never seen the musical in its original run. Filled with a gorgeously sweeping score and an insanely talented cast able to sing Guetel's beautiful songs with masterful voices, this Italian journey surely ranks as one of the best, most attractive musicals SCR has mounted in recent years.

More, per favore.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR. From top: Clara (Erin Mackey) takes a tour of Florence with Fabrizio (David Burnham); Margaret Johnson (Patti Cohenour) expounds on statues and stories; Fabrizio (Burnham) romances Clara (Mackey); Signor Naccarelli (Perry Ojeda) discusses with Margaret (Cohenour) the relationship between their children; Margaret (Cohenour) notices her daughter Clara (Mackey) is growing up.


Performances of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA continue at South Coast Repertory through February 24, 2014. Tickets can be purchased online at, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

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