By Manning Harris
Theatrical Outfit has a charming new production of “The Light in the Piazza,” book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, running through May 15. The musical played on Broadway at Lincoln Center for over a year in 2005-2006. It is directed here by Richard Garner; the show is based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer.
This is a musical play about love and courage; it postulates that you can’t have one without the other, as the old saying goes. The word “courage” literally means an act of the heart.
What better place to explore such a theme than Florence, Italy, circa 1953? Mrs. Margaret Johnson (Christy Baggett), a youthful middle-aged American mother and her 26-year-old daughter Clara (Devon Hales) arrive to see the sights and explore the art. What they’re really doing is looking for love, on many levels, did they but know it. By the way, this is the city that Margaret and her husband Roy (Chris Kayser) spent their honeymoon. He has stayed at home, however, in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Clara, pretty and winsome, is nevertheless somewhat beclouded mentally: She was kicked in the head by a pony when she was ten. But it’s something that is not immediately obvious. Nor does it prevent the handsome, 20-year-old Fabrizio (Tim Quartier) from being immediately struck by the thunderbolt upon first seeing Clara. She returns his affection, almost as quickly. Mother, of course, is nonplussed and alarmed.
Tennessee Williams once wryly observed that Italians do not have our puritanical reserve about sex and romance (you may disagree with him; I’m not). So Fabrizio is happy to share the news of his love with his family: his father, Signor Naccarelli (Michael Strauss), a haberdasher; his mother (Carolyn Dorff); his philandering brother Giuseppi (Joe Knezevich); and his wife Franca (Randi Garza), loving but understandably resentful.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Johnson, who foresees dire consequences for both Clara and the Naccarellis should marriage occur (and it seems likely), does what she can to discourage the romance. So does her husband, if only by telephone. It becomes apparent that the flames in their marriage are flickering at a low ebb. This is as much plot as I can reveal without being a spoiler.
I happened to see the Lincoln Center production in 2005; one of the things I remember most is the gorgeousness of the set. You really felt as if you were in Florence or Rome and that Katharine Hepburn would walk around the corner at any moment (as she did in the charming 1955 David Lean cinematic soap opera “Summertime,” set in Venice). And the light in the piazza was indeed golden.
The brilliant set designer Kat Conley could have no doubt achieved the same effects here if she had had several hundred thousand dollars to play with, as the New York show surely did. As it is, the set is lovely and serves the play well, as does lighting designer Joseph A. Futral.
But you know what? I liked Theatrical Outfit’s cast better. Director Garner and his associate and casting director Clifton Guterman deserve awards for assembling this group of accomplished, charismatic singing actors. I’m quite in love with all of them; but before I sing their praises further, I must mention one conundrum.
It’s courageous on the part of composer/lyricist Guettel to have the Italian characters speak and sing so much in Italian. (And I like opera; I could listen to “La Bohème” or “Carmen” all day.) But the lack of intelligibility on the part of the audience for too long is the single factor that prevents “Piazza” from being a truly great show. The Italian works well in many ways: It can be funny and charming, and it sounds beautiful! But there you are. The emotional momentum of the show is slowed down.
The music is lush and lovely (kudos to musical director Alli Lingenfelter). And what singers we’ve got—both mother and daughter (Ms. Baggett and Ms. Hales) may break your heart with their passionate, deeply felt arias like “The Beauty Is,” which both sing, or Margaret’s “Dividing Day.”
Tim Quartier, who makes his Atlanta debut here, gives us a Fabrizio worthy of any spinster’s dreams, especially if she’s on vacation in Italy. And Mr. Quartier sings superbly; his “Love to Me” may induce swoons.
Randi Garza is a major presence on any stage she graces these days; her Franca’s “The Joy You Feel” has fire and ice. You may remember her outstanding “Evita” at Serenbe Playhouse last summer.
Michael Strauss is quite commanding in the type of role Rossano Brazzi often played in the 1950’s. I especially like his conciliatory moments with Ms. Baggett near the end of the evening.
Again, this cast is stellar. When you have people like Joe Knezevich and Chris Kayser playing “smaller” roles, you know you’re in good hands. Steve Hudson, Jessica De Maria, Rose Alexander, Chaz Duffy, and Robert Mitchell Owenby complete the cast.
“The Light in the Piazza” does not seem like regional theatre. If you have any sense of the romantic and if you agree with William Faulkner’s dictum that “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself,” you’re going to love this show.
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.