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“Light in the Piazza” still resonates at South Coast Repertory

Erin Mackey and David Burnham in "light in the Piazza" at South Coast Repertory Theatre through Feb. 23rd.
Erin Mackey and David Burnham in "light in the Piazza" at South Coast Repertory Theatre through Feb. 23rd.
South Coast Repertory Theatre

"Light in the Piazza"


Costa Mesa, CA---For Craig Lucas, it is a homecoming of sorts. I first met Lucas when his west coast premiere of “The Three Postcards” was mounted. “Reckless” his world premiere of “Prelude To A Kiss”, “Blue Window” and “Marry Me A Little” followed, but not necessarily in that order. He was named one of SCR's Associate Artist, an honor reserved for only a handful of theatre artists. And now his "Light in the Piazza" has come home. For my fellow romantics out there “Light In The Piazza” by Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) it's an early valentine, just what the doctor ordered for some lite afternoon or evening delight.

“Light in the Piazza” is based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer and made into a movie in 1962 starring Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, George Hamilton and Yvette Mimieux. The story set in Florence and Rome is one of a mother and daughter off on holiday to Italy to see the sights and for Mom to have some space to reflect on her now, empty marriage with her executive businessman husband back in North Carolina even though their romance itself blossomed in Rome. Conflicts between maternal love and young, romantic love dominate the story line.

It’s a tender and sweet love story of star-crossed lovers, Fabrizio Naccarelli (“Love to Me”) and Clara Johnson (“The Beauty Is”). They meet by chance in the piazza while mother and daughter were sightseeing and a wisp of wind carries Clara’s hat off up, up and almost away abut is brought down by Fabrizio. For Fabrizio, it’s love at first sight. Clara gets caught up in the moment and before the both sets of parents know it, the two are ‘romantically involved’, a la 50’s style.

But there is something amiss. There is a secret that underlines the excitement of the romance and while Clara and Fabrizio become more smitten, Margaret struggles with how to tell Fabrizio’s family of Clara’s ‘condition’. The story lurches and bobs back and fourth before we learn that Clara, while having the body of a mature young woman, is socially immature due to horse riding accident she incurred as a child of twelve.

It’s nothing one would notice, but terrifies Margaret (Patti Cohenour) because since the accident she and her husband have protected their daughter from anything that might hurt her fresh and youthful innocence. While Clara, (Erin Mackey) who is twenty-six and has the emotional maturity of a teenager, she is feeling the first stirrings of romantic love with a dashing and attentive young man of no more than twenty. The more her mother struggles with her motherly instincts to protect her daughter the more persistent the couple becomes to make their dream a reality.

The side story is the one between the American and Italian families and their coming together in the end to support their children. It’s a little soap opera-ish, but plays out beautifully against the musical background of Guettel’s quasi-operatic score and Lucas’ book. In fact, it soars thanks to the fine work of all involved in the production.

The first time I saw “Light In The Piazza” was in New York and I thought I had seen one of the finest shows Broadway had to offer. After winning the Tony Award for Best Original Score, Best Leading Actress, Best Scenic Design of a Musical, Best Costume Design of a Musical and Best Orchestrations it reaffirmed, at least some of my (er) keen ear for musical theatre! The second time was when Lamb’s Players Theatre mounted it at their theatre in Coronado in 2008. That was a gutsy move for Lamb’s and it paid off royally. They did a super job with a show not very easy to do.

“Guettel has reinvented American Musical theatre by “incorporating stylistic idioms not normally associated with show music”. His works are referred to vernacular opera. He grew up in the theatre world, particularly musical theatre. His grandfather was Richard Rodgers. Those of us around long enough remember his “Floyd Collins”, another not so easy to operetta to sell, that was mounted at the Old Globe many moons ago.

He wrote the music and lyrics to that as well. Tina Landau wrote the book, based on Floyd Collins, the miner trapped in Sandy Cave in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky in the winter of 1925. It tells of the many desperate attempts by National Guard, Red Cross failed to save him. At the time the musical was referred to as “original and daring music of the day”.

On a lighter note, this current production of “Light In The Piazza” at the South Coast Repertory Theatre is just as charming and packed with talent both artistically and technically as the others I saw. And while the show is seldom produced, hat’s off to SCR. Artistically the voices, one and all, are simply splendid.

No easy fete this, as Guettel’s music while sophisticated, atonal and lyrical all at once is more like an operetta or Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” than the more traditional musical theatre like “Oklahoma” or “South Pacific”.

Patti Cohenour is reprising the role she portrayed in Lincoln Center’s production. It’s no wonder she looked and felt so at home. As Margaret she carries most of the burden, first convincing her daughter that she should shy away from her newly found amour, then convincing her absentee husband that she really has no control over the situation and finally convincing the elder Naccarelli, (Perry Ojeda) that her daughter will make a perfect wife for his young son, Fabritzio (the handsome, charming and absolutely marvelous David Burnham who was also in the ensemble of the Tony Award winning cast at Lincoln Center and in the national tour played Fabrizio.)

Every member in this handsome looking cast was in top form from the ensemble that includes Joseph Almohaya, who holds a bachelor in vocal performance and a master of fine art from the Musical Theatre Program of San Diego State University.

In director Kent Nicholson’s skillful hands both David Burnham’s Fabrizio and Erin Mackey’s Clara play out their romantic wanderings true to form against all odds. Both sets of parents have their doubts not the least of which is that they seem like two high school kids hell bent on breaking all the rules although they don’t seem aware of it. It’s the truth in innocence that makes this story so believable and they pull it off. Both soar in the musical world giving another layer of intensity to the story. (“The Light in the Piazza” sung beautifully by Mackey).

Adding some comic relief, Fabrizio’s family, including his father Signor Naccarelli (Perry Ojeda), his mother Signora Naccarelli (the delightful Mary Gutzi making her SCR debut), his brother (Christopher Newell) and sister-in-law (the hot Melina Kalomas who is also making her SCR debut). They bring some humanity to the romance and while they are all struggling with their own spouses, are somewhat envious of the young lovers. Charming is the best word I can find to define the play.

On the technical side, if lighting design was a character, I would nominate Lap Chi Chu for outstanding design work turning Neil Patel’s museum backdrop set into a sea change of colors in some of the most innovative ways, all eye-popping.

Musical direction by Dennis Castellano with his five-piece ensemble set behind the louvered shutters of the backdrop is right on target with Guettel’s lovely music. Oft times just the music in the background is enough to satisfy the senses.

Costume designs by Leah Piehl are color coordinated to perfection and the zebra stripped capris worn by Melina Kalomas are a knockout. (Of course one has to have the figure for that)

All in all, it is well worth the drive north to Costa Mesa to catch this lesser produced, but by no means less wonderful musical by Adam Guettel.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 23rd

Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre

Phone: 714-708-5500

Production Type: Musical

Where: 655 Towne Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Ticket Prices: $25.00 and up


Venue: Segerstrom Stage

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