Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 3, 2010

A lyrical 'Light'

Dramatic stakes are lower in this 'Piazza,' but production sounds and looks gorgeous

by Jeanie K. Smith

"The Light in the Piazza," with its lush, lyrical score by Adam Guettel and smart, witty book by Craig Lucas, is set to charm audiences in an attractive production by TheatreWorks. Winner of six Tonys in 2005, "Piazza" deserves attention, not only for its gorgeous contemporary sound, but also for its heartfelt message of love and redemption.

Based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the musical focuses on Margaret (Rebecca Eichenberger), a middle-aged woman from North Carolina; and her 26-year-old daughter, Clara (Whitney Bashor). The pair are traveling in Italy in 1953, retracing the path that Margaret took on her honeymoon with her husband, Roy (Richard Frederick).

In a piazza in Florence, a chance encounter with a young Italian man, Fabrizio (Constantine Germanacos), alters destiny. Romance blossoms between Clara and him, in spite of Margaret's objections.

Apart from the usual reservations a mother might have about her daughter being wooed by a stranger in a strange land, Margaret has a secret about Clara that she believes should keep any real relationship from happening. An accident has rendered Clara forever childlike, leaving her with the mental capacity of a 12-year-old in a young woman's body. Should Margaret tell Fabrizio and his well-meaning parents, the Nacarellis (Martin Vidnovic and Caroline Altman)? Should she just take Clara and run in the opposite direction, in spite of her daughter's growing affection for the young man?

The dilemma and Clara's burgeoning relationship heighten Margaret's awareness of her own failing marriage, and the journey she takes to regain her faith in the promise of love. The story gives us love in different stages and ages — young, old, new, waning, stagnant, hopeful — reflecting its many faces, joys and disappointments.

Fabrizio and Clara, Signor and Signora Nacarelli, Fabrizio's brother Giuseppe (Nicolas Aliaga) and his wife, Franca (Ariela Morgenstern), and even Margaret and Roy, all have stories to share about the thorny complexity of relationship. Ultimately, Margaret's story takes her to a place of redemption, a vision of possibility that has been renewed by love.

The story rests heavily on the fact that Clara is compromised, presumably incapable of a mature relationship; on that lies much of Margaret's agonizing, and it accounts for her initial determination to keep Clara from Fabrizio. However, in this production Clara is an ordinary girl: a little petulant, perhaps, but otherwise quite normal. The lack of any sign of oddness from her makes Margaret seem a little nutty — why is she worrying at all?

Director Robert Kelley's unconventional choice to interpret Clara as a more normal girl negates much of the story sense, turning it into a rather mundane romance. It lowers the dramatic stakes, and makes those unfamiliar with the story wonder what all the fuss is about. It also refocuses the plot more on Clara and Fabrizio and less on Margaret, something brought home still farther by the restaging of the end of the show.

That being said, there is still much to appreciate in this production. Germanacos' gorgeous vocals as Fabrizio, for one. This is clearly a young man to watch. The bravado aria of Act One was matched by the simple beauty of the love song in Act Two, and his scenes with Clara had the requisite sweetness and innocence of young love.

The whole Nacarelli family was enjoyable. Vidnovic (Signor) had a suave demeanor and impeccable grooming, while Altman (Signora) was gracious and a bit resigned, with a short solo perfectly rendered. Morgenstern as Franca delivered a superb solo, although the bit of staging with Clara that played for laughs in the middle of the song was distracting. Aliaga, as Giuseppe, was the epitome of the charming rogue.

Bashor has played Clara before at other venues nationally, and has all the right stuff for the role: stunning voice, blonde good looks, an easy physicality and naturalness on stage. We should be hearing more of her in the future.

Eichenberger has a mammoth job as Margaret, and is mostly up to the challenge, although her vocals wavered a little — perhaps just the strain of intense rehearsals leading up to opening night. Her manner aptly suited the character, but she didn't effectively dominate the landscape of the play, which again may have been a directorial choice.

The set and light designs, by J.B. Wilson and Pamila Z. Gray, work beautifully together, with soaring heights and warm Tuscan tones. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt carry out the palette further, using 1950s tailoring to good effect. Music Director William Liberatore gets a wonderful, big sound from his small ensemble orchestra. Altogether a lovely evening's entertainment.

What: "The Light in the Piazza," with book by Craig Lucas and music by Adam Guettel, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through Sept. 19, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and 7 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Tickets are $27-$67.

Info: Go to http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

Comments

Posted by Local Child Psychologist, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 3, 2010 at 10:31 am

I saw the original production in New York on Tony weekend and I was transformed by and related to the story having been raised with a sibling suffering from mental illness following a traumatic accident. How typical and unfortunately expected of our community that Director Robert Kelley made the unconventional choice to interpret Clara as a more normal girl, which now of course negates much of the story sense! The strong denial that there might be anything wrong with our children in our local schools and community while they suffer from major academic stress and some from mental illnesses such as depression and substance dependence has now transferred to our local theatre stage where any evidence of a lack of "normalcy" has to be downplayed and even erased. What is wrong with us all that we can not accept and deal with issues as simple as a suffering and struggling child in public? Should we only mount theatre productions that depict children and teens proudly declaring their more than normal mental health while displaying 4.5 GPA's? We have no problems with subjects of children dealing with life-threatening illnesses like leukemia on screen and stage but again, why do we all turn away in shame when that same child displays signs of depression and emotional problems? Once again, we have missed an opportunity through the magic of theatre to raise awareness in our community of the issue of mental illnesses, and how parents cope with it.
What is next for Palo Alto? A production of "Next to Normal" without the Bipolar mother?


Posted by eric, a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 13, 2010 at 3:05 pm

I agree that the directorial choices were unfortunate. What remained was a thin story with undeveloped characters. The performers were all skilled vocalists, but their performances (perhaps the material) were not interesting enough to stand without anything behind them. Many elements of the story- and many characters- felt tacked on.

The sets were stunning and the orchestra wonderful. I found the balance to be lacking.


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