Is anyone ever really prepared for love? That is the question asked by The Light in the Piazza, a musical about a mother trying to protect her daughter from the complexities of falling in love. The daughter has some “special circumstances” that the mother is concerned about, but is she fighting a losing battle against one of the strongest feelings known to man? This tale unfolds at the New Hazlett as Front Porch Theatricals premieres their second show of the season.
Margaret Johnson has taken her young adult daughter Clara to Italy for a vacation. Clara meets young dreamy Italian boy Fabrizio and the two almost instantly fall in love. Margaret intervenes many times at keeping her daughter away from him, but Fabrizio’s persistence leads to the Johnsons meeting his family and the lovebirds getting swept away with each other. Margaret’s motives behind protecting her daughter eventually find their way to the surface and complicate her feelings about everything, including her husband back in the States.
Piazza is based on a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, and the subject matter is sort of a bizarre choice for a musical. Clara’s “condition” never seems as serious as Margaret makes it out to be, and perhaps the point is that Margaret projects her own fears onto her daughter. Clara has qualities that make her seem a bit childish and foolish, but one could argue that she’s in her twenties so that’s totally reasonable. In fact, there are many reasons given that Clara and Fabrizio shouldn’t be married (her condition, their age difference) but not once does anyone mention the fact they’ve known each other maybe a week. And there’s a language barrier. But they’re so in love, so don’t worry. It’s that kind of love story.
A lot of the exposition and explanations of the show are given in direct audience asides by Margaret, played and sung wonderfully by Becki Toth. These asides give Ms. Toth the chance to make funny snide comments and also get into some serious emotional monologues. Eventually Margaret starts to analyze her life, her marriage, and the mistakes she’s made in her past way of thinking. The scenes with Margaret pack more emotional punches than the show’s love story, which tends to follow the typical steps you’d expect.
The score is beautifully composed and performed, with songs that have a rich operatic and romantic sound. Lindsay Bayer plays Clara with all the energy and naivety of a Disney princess, and her clear soprano voice bursts Clara’s heart out onto the stage. Joshua Grosso has equally golden chops as Fabrizio, a somewhat dorky but totally lovable leading man. The rest of the cast does good work with the classical music-style of the score. Antonia Botti-Lodovico, as Fabrizio’s sister-in-law, hits some crazy high notes that stand out amongst the group.
But while the music is pretty it doesn’t always compliment the story. Fabrizio’s first number is entirely in Italian and Mr. Grosso had wonderful vocals that received long applause despite the audience not knowing what he was saying. But you don’t have to know, because it’s easy enough to guess: he’s in love, he’s happy, he’s nervous, he’s afraid, he’s hopeful, end of song. As pretty as the show is, it can get tiring watching Clara and Fabrizio loudly vocalizing vowel sounds into each other’s faces. Other numbers that feature a large amount of singers (some in Italian) tend to wind up a wall of well-sung but confusing sound. To the show’s credit, it does have a great gag where Fabrizio’s Italian mother (Cynthia Harding) breaks the fourth wall in English to translate for the audience.
There is an empty art motif on the set, which features many suspended empty picture frames and four giant frames that are used as doorways, walls, or museum paintings. It’s a great way to create different locations quickly and easily, although the frames could also symbolize Clara’s inability to grasp complicated things or Margaret’s inability to see what’s in front of her. The costumes are as classic and pretty as the characters wearing them, helping to create that magic version of Italy filled with beautiful people.
Definitely see The Light in the Piazza for the wonderful vocals, strong performances, and the general aesthetic. The story can be a bit vague and the lovebirds basic, but the commitment of the crew, cast, and musicians make it entertaining enough to push past that. It’s not your run-of-the-mill musical, nor is it a full-blown opera. It’s pretty, it’s romantic, and it’s very Italian. Ciao.
The Light in the Piazza
Presented by Front Porch Theatricals
Directed by Stephen Santa
Written by Craig Lucas (book), Adam Guettel (music/lyrics)
Designed by Bryce Cutler (scenery), Kim Brown (costumes), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting) Angela Baughman (sound)
Starring Lindsay Bayer (Clara Johnson), Joshua Grosso (Fabrizio Nacarelli), Becki Toth (Margaret Johnson), Jeff Howell (Signor Naccarelli), Patrick Cannon (Giuseppe Naccarelli), Antonia Botti-Lodovico (Franca Naccarelli), Cynthia Harding (Signora Naccarelli), Richard Kenzie (Roy Johnson), and ensemble Zanna Fredland, Jeremy Kuharcik, Joshua Schirtzinger, Kristin Serafini.
Speical thanks to Front Porch Theatricals for complimentary press tickets. The show runs until August 30th. Tickets can be purchased here.
Performance Date: Friday, August 21, 2015