BWW Review: Lushly Romantic THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Ushers in New Era for Street Theatre Company
Craig Lucas' evocative libretto and Adam Guettel's lushly romantic (and Tony Award-winning) score, notwithstanding - and putting aside the momentous occasion of Street Theatre Company inaugurating a new theater venue - perhaps the most notable attribute of the Ernie Nolan-directed version of The Light in the Piazza debuting tonight is its stellar cast of artists who bring the show to life with such apparent ardor. Continuing through April 20, STC's The Light in the Piazza is beautifully sung and impressively acted by Nolan's impeccably cast ensemble in a production fairly redolent of mid-century Florence and it serves as the perfect introduction to STC's new home.
Stylish and seductive, the production's design aesthetic - which features costumes by Katie Del Rocco, set design by Sawyer Wallace and lighting by Katie Gant - provides the perfect, artistic backdrop for the story of Margaret Johnson and her beloved daughter, Clara, and their life-altering trip to Italy in the summer of 1953. Lindsay Hess and Briar Moroschak are cast as the mother and daughter, each cast in a role for which she might have been considered by the writers when creating the musical based upon Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella (and the subsequent 1962 screen treatment it inspired) of the same name.
Clearly, The Light in the Piazza provides an emotional and ultimately moving vehicle for the reveal of Street Theater Company's new home and base of operations, ushering in a new era for the Nashville-based company that's proven itself over the years with its ever-evolving cavalcade of productions that challenge not only its cadre of artists, but its loyal audiences as well.
At once passionate and lyrical - as one would expect a treatise on romance in 1953 Florence to be - The Light in the Piazza played for 500+ performances at Lincoln Center in its Broadway run and since then has attracted legions of fans mesmerized by its effective storytelling and Guettel's exquisitely crafted score that blends the styles of semi-classical art songs (with operatic aspirations) and showstopping musical theater compositions. Guettel's score, so unlike most of the pablum served up in films turned into stage musicals, is nicely suited to the musical theater stage, captivating audiences heretofore accustomed to the customary rhymes by rote and lyrics by way of sophomoric introspection.
The musical's Italian setting provides the perfect opportunity for a composer of Guettel's stature and Broadway lineage (he's the grandson of Richard Rodgers, of R&H - and all that encompasses - fame, and the son of Mary Rodgers Guettel, of Once Upon a Mattress fame) to put his ample talents on display and, in The Light in the Piazza, he does so with infinite skill and confidence. Guettel's score is opulent and gorgeous, as artistic as any of the works made reference to in Lucas' articulate libretto, which reflects a shared Italian/American fondness for their enjoined cultures in the aftermath of Italy's post-Mussolini occupation by the Yanks.
Italy, at the time the play takes place, was reclaiming its role internationally in world affairs, popular culture and sport, while updating its conventional (even culturally, jarringly provincial) social mores in an effort to keep up with the rest of a quickly evolving society. Thus, when Margaret Johnson brings her lovely daughter for a sentimental journey to Italy (where she and her unseen husband, who is very present nonetheless) to the site of her own honeymoon, she is seeking not only to recapture the romance of her own youth, but something of the world before it was plunged into a cataclysmic war that changed everything and, perhaps more importantly, everyone.
It is, therefore, the backdrop of that changing world that the romantic story of Clara Johnson and Fabrizio Nacarelli (Jairus Maples) is presented in relief: a newly refreshing and contemporary relationship buffeted and tossed about by the traditions and constraints of two very different upbringings.
The initial pangs of attraction are richly felt in Clara and Fabrizio's romance - brought more vividly to life in a theatrical sense, thanks to the onstage chemistry of the two actors - and expressed via their characters' first musical moments, such as Moroschak's lovely rendering of "The Beauty Is" and Maples' exquisite 'Il Mondo Era Vuoto."
The course of true love never runs smooth, however, and as the true story of Clara and that which sets her apart from other beautiful young women on romantic holiday is revealed, The Light in the Piazza takes on deeper meaning, its potential for heartbreaking moments even more consequential than might first be imagined. Margaret is so fiercely protective of her daughter, so earnestly eager to prevent her from experiencing any sense of disquiet and/or the merest suggestion of emotional pain, because of an accident that has left Clara developmentally disabled since the age of 12. It is as if the childlike Clara is trapped inside the body of a lovely and vibrant woman in her mid-20s, longing for fulfillment and true love.
Fabrizio and his family - his wonderfully fiery, passionate, loud and quintessentially Italian family - are unaware of Clara's true nature, accepting her with open arms and an abiding desire for the young man's chance for true happiness, which prompts Margaret to consider her own responsibilities. What could easily devolve into a miasma of misfortune, heartbreak and missed opportunities instead becomes something far more hopeful, more exhilaratingly uplifting.
Nolan directs the musical with his usual confidence and commitment, creating with his cast and crew a brilliantly conceived world in which the unexpected love story of Clara and Fabrizio reads more authentic and genuine. The love story and all its accompanying intrigue unfolds at a sublime pace, the trappings of its physical production underscoring the tale with reasoned and reflective consideration.
To a person, Nolan has cast the show with great skill and an eye for telling that story. Case in point: Hess has simply never been better nor more compelling onstage. She shows a maturity as yet unseen (her past performances as The 25th Annual Spelling Bee's preternaturally precocious Logainne and as South Pacific's Nellie Forbush did little to prepare us for her profound transformation into a Southern socialite and mother) and she imbues Margaret with such maternal gravitas that her audience is captivated by her nuanced performance. Her rendition of "Fable," which comes at the end of Act Two, is poignantly heartstopping.
Moroschak effectively captures Clara's childlike mien with an easy grace, yet somehow she manages to invest in her character all the needs and desires of a young woman in her prime. At one moment, Moroschak's Clara is winsome and innocent, at the next a petulant and unruly and yet she follows that up with a palpable sensuality that is startling. Her finely modulated performance is a star-making turn, to be certain.
Likewise, Maples - who previously has not been given such an opportunity on a local stage to show off his tremendous acting skills and his heartrendingly beautiful voice - manages to capture everything about Fabrizio that sets him apart from all the other characters available to a young and gifted performer. Maples very ably displays Fabrizio's anguish, while capturing the tenderest of romantic moments shared with Moroschak's Clara.
Equally as impressive as the three leads are the members of the ensemble, most notable those actors playing the Naccarelli family: Alan Smith as the family patriarch, Brooke Leigh Davis (who, quite, frankly, has never looked more sophisticated and elegant onstage) as his wife, Teal Davis as elder son Giuseppe and the radiant Margaret French as daughter-in-law Franca. The remainder of the ensemble members - including Austin Jeffrey Smith as a Priest, Mac Ogle, Corrie Maxwell, Crystal Kurek, Julie Adams and Carly Rose - offer strong support throughout the play's close to two hours of playing time.
Del Rocco's fashionable costumes play an integral role in the storytelling, dressing the Naccarellis in eye-catching styles of this particular moment in time, allowing them to show off the sophistication and panache of their characters, while she dresses the play's American contingent (Margaret and Clara) in a tasteful, if less fashion-conscious, more distinctly American, way.
The Light in the Piazza. Book by Craig Lucas. Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Directed by Ernie Nolan. Presented by Street Theatre Company, 1120 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville. Through April 20. For details, go to www.streettheatrecompany.org. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).