Story: Margaret Johnson has taken her daughter Clara to Italy for a quiet vacation in the summer of 1953. While they’re enjoing the artistic sights in Florence, a handsome young Florentine man tracks down Clara’s hat, which has been blown down the street by a strong breeze.
He returns Clara’s hat and instantly is smitten with her, as she is with him. He asks if he can join her and her mother for lunch, but Margaret uneasily declines, fearing he may be after their money. Fabrizio persists, however, and ultimately mother and daughter agree to meet him.
As the romance between Fabrizio and Clara escalates, Margaret’s defense mechanism kicks into high gear for her daughter, a young woman who is physically mature but slow with mental development since she had been kicked in the head by a pony when she was a child. Since that time, Margaret and her husband Roy have been overly protective of their only child.
Nonetheless, Fabrizio brings Clara and Margaret to meet his family, including his commanding merchant father Signor Naccarelli, his doting mother Signora Naccarelli, his worldly brother Giuseppe and his passionate sister-in-law Franca. The elder Naccarelli tries to assuage Margaret’s concerns, imploring her to appreciate life and love as they occur, unaware of Clara’s condition.
When Margaret phones home to Roy, he impatiently cuts her off, telling her he has important business to oversee while also warning her to keep Clara away from overtures by any Italian men. Saddened by her own loneliness, Margaret keeps Clara at arm’s length from Fabrizio but to no avail, as the two youngsters announce their desire to marry.
Shortly before the wedding, Signor Naccarelli learns a disturbing fact about Clara which compels him to forbid the marriage. Seeing him agitated, Margaret suggests that they take another walk together in the piazza.
Will she be able to change his mind, permitting the self-doubting Fabrizio and the mentally challenged Clara to search for their own happiness together? And what will she say to her distant and demanding husband?
Highlights: R-S Theatrics opens its eighth season, “The Season of the Not-So-Perfect Past,” with the locally produced premiere of a charming and beautifully sung version of this multi-Tony-Award-winning musical from writer Craig Lucas and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel.
Other Info: The Light in the Piazza, which is based on a novella written by Elizabeth Spencer that also was the basis of a 1962 movie of the same title, garnered an impressive 11 Tony Award nominations in 2005, winning six including Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations. The unorthodox musical ran for 540 performances on Broadway from its 2005 previews until it closed in 2006.
It’s ‘unorthodox’ in the sense that it sounds much more like an opera than a Broadway musical, albeit a well-composed piece structurally and one which allows for rich use of an array of strong voices. Such is the case with R-S Theatrics’ presentation under the loving direction of artistic director Christina Rios and her smartly assembled cast.
Kay Love anchors the proceedings with an affecting performance as the quiet, well-bred Southern lady Margaret, whose outward sophistication belies her own loneliness in a marriage to a man more concerned with his career than with his wife’s happiness. Margaret’s visit to Italy with Clara actually is an attempt for her to recapture the joy she experienced there on her honeymoon more than 25 years earlier.
Love conveys Margaret’s protective and sometimes domineering love of her only child in a well-wrought performance which also allows her to showcase her considerable singing skills. This show works better in the intimacy of the Marcelle Theater than in the cavernous confines of the Fox Theatre, where a touring production of Piazza played back in 2007.
Guettel’s music is lush, evocative and has an old-fashioned feel to it, which accentuates the operatic tunes that frequently are sung in Italian. The two-act musical is performed on an effective set designed by J. Keller Ryan that features a number of rectangular boxes arranged to capture the spirit of a piazza, with enough open space to allow for the graceful choreography contributed by Cecily A. King.
Ashley Bauman’s sumptuous costumes outfit the players in handsome attire of the era, notably Margaret’s prim and proper look and the tidy professional suits favored by Signor Naccarelli. Nathan Schroeder lights everything with soft, muted illumination, while Heather Tucker adds some nice touches with properties which accentuate the setting.
The sound design by Mark Kelley features popular songs of the era, including Italian singers, and Myriam Colombo serves admirably as Italian language coach (at least, it all sounded authentic to me). As for the music, this production led by conductor/pianist Sarah Nelson appears to employ Guettel’s 2008 chamber music version and features cellist Emily Lane, harpist Terri Langerak, violinist Kelly LaRussa and Jacob Stergos on bass.
Macia Noorman and Tielere Cheatem each displays a fine talent for singing Guettel’s intricate and complex melodies, he often in expressive Italian and she in plaintive English. Kent Coffel delivers a compelling interpretation of the sagacious if also stern Signor Naccarelli, sounding convincingly fluent with his Italian phrases.
There’s fine supporting work by Micheal Lowe as Fabrizio’s philandering older brother Giuseppe and Stephanie Merritt as Giuseppe’s hot-tempered wife Franca, who is angered by Giuseppe’s indiscretions but nevertheless determined to make her marriage work. Jodi Stockton does well as Fabrizio’s loyal mother Signora Naccarelli and Robert Doyle nicely handles the difficult role of Margaret’s brusque and self-centered husband Roy.
Ensemble players who handsomely fill out scenes include Ann Hier, Louisa Wimmer, Chris Kernan, Jason Meyers, Melissa Christine, Lindy Elliott and Anthony Randle. Avery Smith is touching in the brief role of young Clara.
The Light in the Piazza definitely seems to work better in a small theater, something which Rios and her stylish cast utilize to great advantage in this presentation. Such a setting is where the needs of the heart can shine best.
Musical: The Light in the Piazza
Company: R-S Theatrics
Venue: Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive
Dates: August 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26
Tickets: $20-$25, contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Michael Young