BWW Review: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Soars at Arizona State University Music Theatre And Opera
THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Soars at Arizona State University Music Theatre And Opera
The Light In The Piazza has an unfamiliar Tony Award winning score by Adam Guettel, and features an unexpected love story with an undeniably touching message. A breath of fresh air in the modern musical theatre cannon, it proves to be a genius combination of classical and contemporary elements. This is the show that gave Victoria Clark her Tony, brought together Bartlett Sheer and Kelli O'Hara to make them stars, and is one of the most difficult, rarely performed musicals out there. The small cast is lead by two incredibly strong female characters, requiring the actors to have formidably trained voices and honest emotional availability. Nothing about the score is simple, and without brilliant music direction the show could easily crumble. But I think the most challenging aspect of all is the amount of empathy, heart, and sincerity required from the director and cast to tell this story properly. All of these necessities come together with a swell of vitality in Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera's production, thanks to stars Mary Ott and Kathlynn Rodin, Music Director Greg Paladino, and Director Robert Kolby Harper.
Shadows with tints of pink and blue paint the stage as we enter Florence, Italy in 1953, the backdrop for Margaret Johnson and her daughter's vacation. As a loving but overbearing mother, it's clear Margaret is quite content guiding the 26 year old Clara into places unknown. Through Margaret's confidential asides, we come to learn Clara was injured when she was twelve, making it so her mind would never develop to adulthood. A beautiful blonde beam of sunlight, Clara is in a state of perpetually youthful mind and spirit. She needs help staying calm, safe, and happy. At least, that's what her mother would lead us to believe. The plot takes off when a bold young Italian man sets his sights on the equally smitten Clara.
It's love at first sight, in spite of Margaret's suspicions and the obvious language barrier. Fabrizio Naccarrelli, the lovestruck instigator, is surrounded by a fiery family who join forces to convince Margaret that the connection between these two is real and true. She struggles with deciding how to handle the situation, and whether to divulge Clara's past trauma to the family. Does she want to end it, as her aloof husband back in the states demands? Or, does she stand beside the daughter who has, in her own way, shown passionate maturity beyond her years?
The script is cleverly presented so the audience rarely feels like Clara is incapable of being without her mother, suggesting the protective attitude might be unnecessary. Even when struggles intensify and Clara has moments of need, Fabrizio easily steps into the role of a potential partner and comforter. Clara also continues to surprise her mother with displays of strength and understanding previously thought unattainable by her caretakers and doctors. Every other character struggles with their version of love, often placing their short comings on the budding romance, but not one can deny the full hearted connection between Clara and Fabrizio. The lovers represent youth, innocence, and the ideal of what love can be, transcending all obstacles.
The story and character development are incredibly effective, and the music is gorgeous, but ASU's production excels in large part due to the consistently brilliant cast and creative team. Like a perfect wine pairing, Mary Ott as Margaret and Kathlynn Rodin as Clara compliment and elevate one another in color, charisma, and depth. Ott embodies the likable yet cautious Mrs. Johnson with a voice that could blow the roof off any theatre she graces. Her Southern charm is genuine, and her affection for Clara, earnest. A part that could come across as the antagonist feels most relatable and sympathetic in Ott's skillful hands. As our guide through the show, Ott warmly brings us into her confidence, allowing us to struggle with her, and stand behind her as she navigates uncharted waters. A role meant for an older woman feels believable and effortless with Ott.
Rodin as Clara is a revelation. This performance could confidently rival any Clara to date, including Broadway sweetheart Kelli O'Hara. It is hard to believe this production is part of an educational program for many reasons, but especially because of the masterful singing, layered understanding, and sheer talent Rodin possesses as Clara. Pitch perfect, this casting is a match made in theatre heaven and is a direct salute to what makes ASU Music Theatre and Opera a force to be reckoned.
The cast is full of outstanding singers and top-notch performances. Vaibu Mohan is a vision as the intense Franca, paired with the equally lovely Cade Trotter as her suave husband. Molly Cox and Teddy Ladley create memorable moments as the layered secondary characters Signora Naccarrelli and Roy Johnson, respectively. Falling in love with Fabrizio is easy when the alluring Jacob Herrera is at the helm. Herrera's rendition of "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" is an early scene stealer, and crucial in developing the believability of Fabrizio's impassioned feelings toward Clara, extending far beyond physical attraction. His scene work is adorable and palpable, winning over our hearts as quickly as Clara's.
The Light In The Piazza is "what we do," says Artistic Director Brian DeMaris, and he is absolutely right. In a world of musical theatre programs that focus on the hottest new fads, ASU has grown in prominence by building a foundation on classical voice. That is not to say pop scores and high belts are out of reach for these artists. In fact, quite the contrary. The students that leave this school -- coyly coined "The Hottest Music Theatre Program in the US" -- have the technique that can keep voices healthy throughout a career, and the range to take on any genre.
Programs like ASU's Music Theatre and Opera benefit from exceptional students, but collecting these young talents is only achievable with distinguished faculty and programming. Robert Kolby Harper might be the most sought after director in The Valley, and ASU students are lucky enough to work directly with him at varying capacities. Outside of his instruction and choreography, some students are also able to work with him on challenging character development, story telling, and theatrical production, as is the case with this cast.
Harper's direction has a flawless way of highlighting ardent interactions with ease and humanity. Like the rolling melodies in Guettel's score, Harper's direction flows with buoyancy and light, bringing Florence to life in simple interactions and shifts. A city that feels foreign, yet familiar and inviting. The grandeur of Italy floats to the background as these honest little moments of authentic life are highlighted, elevating the stakes in a way less capable directors might lose sight of. Harper has a way of pulling candid and surprisingly humorous performances out of his actors, featuring the actor's strengths and versatility.
The visuals are brought to fruition with Alfredo Escarcega's multi faceted set and Kristen Peterson's striking yet soothing lighting design. The cherry on top is the superb work done by the routinely remarkable Sharon Jones on the stylish period costumes, hair, and makeup. And, finally, the glue that holds all these pieces together is the stunning work done by Greg Paladino. Paladino is a student in the ASU Master's program and acts as the show's Music Director. Even the most seasoned of musicians would wince at Guettel's highly complex score, and the thought of leading an entire, student comprised pit would be daunting. To a great extent the success of any production of The Light in the Piazza rests in the hands of the Music Director, and Paladino knocks it out of the park. His first-rate musicians capture the beauty and essence of the score, completing the picture of our lovers' world. Paladino leads the way for the entire production, and with this impressive success under his belt, there's nothing in the world of musical theatre or opera that he couldn't artfully accomplish. This dazzling score only works with someone of Paladino's skill level at the forefront.
With only one weekend of performances, all I can say is, "you missed out." Make sure to check out the exceptional work going on at ASU Music Theatre and Opera. These brief moments of artistry represent an exciting future of young performers from all over the country, and the notable local arts education that continues to produce high quality theatre. So Sun Devils!
For more information about future productions: music.asu.edu