12/15/2023 THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Georgia Ensemble Theatre / Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series
The Light in the Piazza has become one of my favorite musicals of the past several years. Chief among its assets is the score (Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel), one of those lush romantic works that are a pleasure to hear for the first time and an even greater pleasure on repeat hearings. This production (a co-production of Geogia Ensemble Theatre and the Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series) is the third version of this I’ve seen, and is, by far, the best for reasons I’ll describe below. And this includes the PBS Broadcast of the original Broadway Production.
Based on a 1960 book (and 1962 movie), The Light in the Piazza tells the story of Margaret and Clara Johnson, mother and daughter from Winston-Salem, NC, as they vacation in Florence, Italy in 1953. Margaret is retracing her honeymoon, hoping to remind herself of better moments of her failing marriage. They meet a young Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli, who is instantly smitten with Clara, as she is with him. All would be perfect, if not for the fact that Clara is not simply innocent and naive, but actually mentally handicapped from a childhood accident. Such subtleties can be easily "lost in translation," and Margaret must decide whether to tell the Naccarelli family. It comes down to this -- will Clara be better off as the daughter-in-law to an oblivious, though wealthy, Italian family than she will be in America, where a lonely, possibly institutionalized, future awaits her? What is unassailable is the passionate love between Clara and Fabrizio, a passion that is only a fading memory to Margaret.
Yes, perhaps a dated Romance-Novel concept. But it is elevated by a romantic score that truly lifts the spirit and fills the head with an ecstasy that echoes the young lovers' blossoming attraction. Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers) has included a bevy of Italianesque melodies and motifs that would feel at home in a Fellini movie. The lyrics easily juggle English and Italian and broken-phrases that are halfway between. And it all ends with a passionate condemnation of love from Margaret, even as she pleads with her daughter to embrace it as long as she can.
This show is filled with "perfect moments" -- sequences with the Naccarelli family that are emotionally understandable despite being in untranslated Italian; Clara's angry innocence somehow mending the tension in the marriage of Fabrizio's brother; a stubborn Clara dragging her heels in Rome when Margaret tries to get her away from Florence; Fabrizio's simple song of love to pull Clara back to the wedding; the budding friendship between Margaret and Fabrizio's father; the dying marriage between Margaret and her too-busy-to-vacation husband.
And this production, as directed by Amanda Wansa Morgan, makes many choices that propel it into the stratosphere. First and foremost is the casting of African-American actors as the Johnson family. Yes, the thought of a wealthy black family from North Carolina during the 1950’s runs counter to all our expectations of life in the Jim Crow South. But a quick Google skim tells us that during the 1950’s “Big Tobacco” was aggressively “courting” Black America, and this could easily include allowing one of “them” to climb the corporate ladder. But more to the point, Kandice Arrington (Margaret) and Carina Crumbly (Clara) throw in so many “ethnic” touches that I had no problem accepting them as American “Innocents Abroad.” Their ethnicity adds layers of emotion and reaction and interaction, adding “race” to the tapestry of aspects “found in translation.”
Another directorial choice worth mentioning (and praising) is the ending. Not to delve into spoilers, but the story ends with the wedding of Clara and Fabrizio. In the original (as in Theatrical Outfits 2016 staging), the wedding happens in the background as Margaret sings “Fable,” a bitter condemnation of love. The original production even over-emphasized the point by staging the wedding behind a cage-like fence. Here, though, Ms. Morgan has Margaret sing it directly to Clara, leaving the skeptical aspects as a brief aside to the audience. This gives the effect of optimism and romance “winning” any potential conflict with bitterness, regret, and the sorry examples of bad marriages that seem to fill the story. And, in my mind, that is a MUCH more satisfying ending than what I have seen previously, which, for me, was always the weakest part of the script in spite of the striking elegance of the “Fable” melody.
To digress a moment, I believe I saw or read an analysis of either the original book or the show itself that described an attempt to show all the “seasons” of love – the dawning passions and fervor of spring for Clara and Fabrizio, the heated summer angers of Guiseppe and Franca, the autumnal cooling suspicions of Signor and Signora Naccarelli, and winter of a marriage in hibernation with Margaret and her husband. The original ending implied that winter will eventually smother the joys of new love, and I’ve always found that a cynical tone. The approach taken by this production is that spring will win every time, the heat of new love makes any imminent frost more a matter of choice than of inevitability. On a personal note, I have yet to experience “Dividing Day” in my own marriage and I do not foresee it ever happening.
I found this cast to be simply superb. Kandice Arrington (Actor’s Express’s Falsettos) is pitch perfect as Margaret, looking every inch the mid-century American tourist, sporting a Southern Black “Church Lady Hat,” desperate to rediscover her own passion, perfectly hiding her jealousy at the new-love glow being discovered by her daughter, fully loving Clara (handicap and all), heartbreaking in her "letting go."
She is well- matched by Carina Crumley’s luminous Clara. She is simply amazing, giving depth and intelligence to a character seemingly incapable of depth or intelligence, giving her a petulance and stubbornness more characteristic of a tween than a young adult. She is a pinball-of-energy as she embraces Italy and Fabrizio with an innocent wonder and passion. She has moments of childlike fun and terror and moments of more mature joy and surliness and anger. And she sings like a Gospel Choir Angel.
The supporting cast includes Leo Thomasian (Spring Awakening from earlier this year as well as Aurora’s recent Beautiful) as Fabrizio, Claudio Pestana (*) (MTC’s Toxic Avenger) and Christina Leidel (Actor’s Express’s Lizzie) as Guiseppe and Franca (Fabrizio's brother and sister-in-law), Jody Woodruff and Mila Bolash as Fabrizio’s parents, Greg Hunter as Margaret's distant husband, and a chameleon-esque ensemble of twelve perfectly slipping into and out of various roles with the ease of repertory masters even while performing stagehand duties to keep all transitions seamless and rapid.. All handle the steep demands of character and language and music with skill (and apparent ease). Credit needs to go to Italian language consultant Cynthia Wohlschlager for making them seem like native Italian-speakers (**), and making those scenes so easy to "get," even without understanding individual words and phrases.
And, in my eyes, that has always been a strength of Craig Lucas’s (Blue Window, Prelude to a Kiss) libretto. He makes us recognize that emotional connection and passion transcend language. No, we don’t know exactly what the Naccarellis are talking about during their scenes, but we sense exactly what is going on, what they’re feeling, what they want. We “get” them, even if we don’t hear (or see) a word-for-word translation of their conversations. And, more to the point, we get to share the Johnsons’ struggles to understand these strange (but oddly familiar) cadences of language.
All this being said, there is nothing like an insanely-talented cast performing an exquisitely memorable score to make you thankful for these “Concert” productions. I loved these characters, this story, this score, this show, and would not mind revisiting as often as schedule and budget allow. It appeals to my sense of romance, my love of ambivalence and ironic juxtaposition, and my "what happens next?" standard of narrative drive.
It also makes me wonder, with the true nature of Clara's handicap "lost in translation," could there be something similarly lost from the Naccarelli side of the equation? Hmmmm….
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #GETPiazza #AdamGuettel)
* Bias Alert: I have worked with Mr. Pestano before and tend to view his work through approval-tinted glasses.
** Of course, not knowing Italian myself, there's no way for me to judge how accurate the pronunciations and dialects are, is there?
And with that, Buona giornata!