The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Directed by Steve Stettler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"What did happen here? I played a tricky game in a foreign country."
Theresa McCarthy and Lauren Worsham as Margaret and Clara Johnson
Through a veil of romantic music, out of arched spaces made remote and foreign by their size and placement, emerge two women, one young and one not so young. The younger of the two asks, "Mother? What happened here?" and the older woman replies as above. This is the perfect setup for a memory play, flashback play, a story retold by the mother, or held back, hidden from the daughter as a protective measure. We are set up, in those first few moments, for a storybook drama with songs.
We are lied to. The authors have provided a gimmick that has no pay-off.
If we donít fall into this trap of the opening moments, the authors have provided a very straight-forward, onward-proceeding narrative. However, if we are haunted, as I was, by that very clearly created opening then what follows - especially the ending of this very engaging show - makes little sense.
Clara, a lovely young girl, and her mother, Margaret, are touring Italy in 1953. In Florence they meet a handsome young man who becomes instantly smitten with the beauty and innocence of Clara. He, Fabrizzio Naccarelli, is equally beautiful and almost as innocent. The two youngsters fall in love, fight with his family, her mother, his family, and ultimately march down the aisle of the Catholic Church to marry. This simple story is complicated by a number of things: Margaretís almost loveless marriage clouds things for Clara; Fabrizioís father is overly protective of his younger sonís honorable intentions when he discovers one of Claraís secrets; Claraís biggest secret is the reason for her childlike, innocent qualities. Margaret, torn between the potential happiness of her child and protecting that child from the traumas that may lie ahead of her, keeps her secrets close to her heart and out of her mouth for as long as possible.
If we could believe the opening sequence and the slow revelations about Clara, then we would have to assume that trauma presents itself early in the marriage and the result is what we hear and see at the top of the show. If the final moments of the play reveal Margaretís desire to let go of her child, her control of that child, then her exit works against that exquisite song, "Fable." If the final moment as staged shows that there is more to come, then perhaps our assumptions at the top are correct and this is a memory play. Itís just too hard to be sure of much, here, about the writing, the direction and the story itself for this to be a completely satisfying experience. And then, there are the songs, and the performances.
The show, and this production of it, has delicate charm. The music jumps from the ethereal to the earthy with Verdi parodies and Richard Rodgers waltzes, from the shimmering tones of a harp to the amassed strings and percussive piano of fifties jazz. Composer Adam Guettel has created a score with a range that proves he is capable of delivering the old-fashioned values of a musical with an insight in lyrics of the modern trend to over-rationalize in shows. Itís a compelling blend of styles that really works in this particular play, but still produces no instantly singable songs.
Guettel has reduced his orchestration from fifteen players (mostly strings) to five musicians for a chamber music effect. Likewise in this production there is no ensemble, their music being sung by the eight principals instead. I can find no fault with the ensemble singing, but a second violinist would certainly help the romantic, lush quality of the score. Mr. G - one more musician if you please.
The setting by Russell Metheny, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld and lighting by Kendall Smith aid in the imaging created by director Steve Stettler. He has managed to create indoor and outdoor spaces with the help of his designers and a swiveling archway. We are never in doubt as to where we are in this production. What Stettler has not managed to do is make the ending and the beginning match up. There is still that gap in the perfect circle where the opposite ends appear to never be able to meet, coming in at different angles, or depths. This is my first exposure to this show on a stage, and perhaps that is a universal problem. I donít know.
Stettler and his casting people have come up with a wonderful company of players. The entire Naccarelli family are so handsome, so beautiful, that I can believe everyone in the audience leaves this show with a cell phone turned on, a call placed to their travel agent, a trip being booked to Florence, Italy. Michelle Rios and David Bonanno are the parents. Jonathan Raviv and Sarah Uriarte Berry are Fabrizioís brother and his wife. Fabrizio is played by Kevin Worley. Raviv and Berry have appeared before in these roles, Raviv in Chicago and Berry in the original Lincoln Center Production. Bonanno was in the ensemble in New York when this show was first mounted and here he succeeds to the important role of the father.
It is hard to know if having people with previous experience in this show helped or hindered the director in finding his own pathway through the vagueness of concept and writing. However, the family dynamic as played by this trio and the two new players, is utterly real and fabulous to watch. The family traumas over Clara are crystal in the playing. Their interpersonal relationships are equally clear and understandable, even when they speak, and sing, in Italian without subtitles.
The Naccarelli Family: Jonathan Raviv, Michelle Rios, Sarah Uriarte Berry, David Bonanno
Kevin Worley as Fabrizio with Lauren Worsham
As Claraís father, a telephone figure, we have Michael Berry who plays the part with stylish awareness of the difficulties in his relationships with his two women. He, in the writing and his performance of it, betrays more of an interest in Clara than might be realized in Margaretís dialogue about him. The man he presents is a man of power, with that power being held in check, limited by his wifeís need to control things.
Clara is played by Lauren Worsham, a young actress with a truly beautiful singing voice who also masterfully manages the slightly childlike cadences of speech so necessary for Claraís character. What she doesnít have is the delicate, childlike blondness of previous Claraís. It is hard to understand what in her face and form so instantly captivates the romantic spirit of the 20-year-old Fabrizzio. Her acting, particularly in the scenes of anger and despair which rattle her self-control and threaten to give away her secret, is riveting. "Hysteria" and "Claraís Tirade" are highlights on the musical acting side, and her duet at the end of Act One was transforming.
Margaret, the teller of the tale, the center of the storm, is played with magnificent force and exquisite subtlety by Theresa McCarthy. While the obvious story focus is on Clara and Fabrizio, it is really Margaretís own story that truly drives this show and McCarthy makes you realize it almost from the first scene as she weaves the stories of ancient Florence into the mix with her own tale. She devotes her energies to taking attention off herself and onto the others, but her voice, stage presence and her position as the keeper of the secrets gives her strengths that the others donít have. McCarthy uses is it all perfectly. If her final solo, "Fable" which ends the show with less than discreet observations about love, could give her the perfect exit, then the show would be honestly her own. As it is, we are still left wanting more, and wanting it from her, both the actress and the role.
Weston Playhouse has a winner with this show. It certainly gets its audience talking and talking about it at the end. If we could just as easily emerge singing a song from the show, it could have been a perfect, rather than merely enthralling, evening.
The Light in the Piazza plays at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont through July 26. Tickets range from $29-$55. For full schedule and to book tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go to their website at www.westonplayhouse.org.