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March 31, 2010

Guest blog review: 'The Light in the Piazza' at Arena Stage

My colleague Mary McCauley has posted this guest review of the Arena Stage production of "The Light in the Piazza," which runs through April 11:

Florence's city squares are famous for the sunshine that illuminates the pillars and monuments, the extraordinary clarity with which visitors can see the smallest details -- and the deceptive optimism that glow can engender.

So "The Light in the Piazza" isn’t merely the title of the musical currently running at Arena Stage, but the perfect metaphor for love at first sight, the kind experienced by a free-spirited American tourist in 1953 and the gallant Italian who falls hard for her.

As the young lovers, Clara and Fabrizio, Margaret Anne Florence and Nicholas Rodriguez, are splendid, healthy creatures, alluring of face and radiant of voice. They, and the performers who play their respective families, were so perfectly cast by the show's director Molly Smith, and are so persuasive in their roles, that it's hard not to so carried away that we overlook the occasional flaws.

This is the chamber concert version of the musical that won six Tony Awards in 2008 by capitalizing on the strength of Adam Guettel's unconventional, operatic score characterized by surprising harmonic shifts and Craig Lucas' psychologically complex script.

"Piazza" is based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer that served as the basis for the 1962 film starring George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux and Olivia de Havilland. The novella, film and musical raise compelling questions about romantic love, illusion, and parental responsibility.

The lovers meet when Clara’s hat is blown away by a gust of wind, and Fabrizio, who has been gazing wistfully at the beautiful girl from a distance, comes to her aid. The two are instantly smitten, and seem so well-suited to one another, that initially Clara’s mother, who opposes the match, seems the model of maternal over-protectiveness.

But, the audience gradually becomes aware that Clara isn’t as she seems, and that, because of the language barrier, Fabrizio might be missing the clues that could illuminate his new love.s unconventional behavior.

For all their physical appeal, Florence and Rodriguez

never trade on their good looks. He displays a gently self-mocking touch when the role requires him to act like a distraught adolescent, and she imbues her performance with a slight, intentional raggedness, the suggestion of sandpaper. When Clara’s secret is revealed at the end of Act I, it doesn't come as a total surprise – but then, it probably shouldn't.

Ken Krugman, Mary Gutzi and Jonathan Raviv also deliver assured performances as, respectively, Fabrizio's father, mother and ne'er-do-well brother, while Ariela Morgenstern, as the disillusioned Franca, displays a ravishing mezzo.

But "The Light in the Piazza" succeeds or fails on the performance of the actor playing Margaret. Luckily, Resnik is as formidable a singer as she is an actress, and her rendition of the bittersweet "Dividing Day" about the growing distance in her own marriage is one of the evening's poignant high points.

Resnik plays Margaret as less a controlling monster than as a confused caregiver torn between conflicting responsibilities and codes of ethics, who yearns after an order that constantly eludes her. Resnik's Margaret seems always to be on the verge of stumbling, of her scarf becoming unknotted or her hair undone.

Because "Light in the Piazza" is set in Italy, and features some emotional (and very funny) scenes between Fabrizio's family, the score’s operatic inflections seem not just appropriate, but inspired. Because many of these characters speak only Italian, many lyrics are in that language.

"Piazza's" creative team could give pointers to the folks who put together the bilingual production of "West Side Story" currently running on Broadway – that's a show that never quite figured out how to handle the linguistic back-and-forth. In "Piazza" the shifts from English to Italian are integrated so seamlessly into the script that the audience barely notices that the characters are speaking a foreign tongue.

The exception is "Aiutami," when the director explicitly calls attention to the show's bilingual character by having the Naccharelli family matriarch translate their comic family melt-down from Italian into English. The result is the comic highlight of the evening.

But, because "Piazza" is in many ways a play about light, it's confusing that the stage frequently looks almost murky. You would think that designer Michael Gillam would have drenched the stage in sunshine, would have made the lovers in particular seem lit from within. It's possible that Arena's temporary, underground home in Crystal City made creating such an effect impossible. Or perhaps Gillam and director Smith were trying to make a point about the moral ambiguity in which Margaret and many of the other characters find themselves.

But, by working in opposition to the story's main theme, some of the show's bright, crisp wattage unfortunately gets dimmed.

-- Mary Carole McCauley (mary.mccauley@baltsun.com)

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (0)
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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