(Costa Mesa, CA) February, 2014 – Ah, Florence during the 1950s! It was a more innocent, romantic time. Author Elizabeth Spencer captured the city’s passionate spirit in her novella, The Light in the Piazza, a love story of how a mother tries to protect her 26 year old daughter from the pains and agonies of falling in love. The novella was successfully adapted by the deft, creative talents of playwright Craig Lucas and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel into the 2005 musical, which was a box office smash on Broadway and was awarded six Tony Awards. Lucas, who is an associate artist at South Coast Repertory and has had five of his plays staged there, returned to Orange County with his Tony award-winning play, and the results are astonishing. This romantic musical is an exquisite selection for SCRs Golden Anniversary Season.
It’s was supposed to be a relaxing summer 1953 vacation in Florence for Margaret (Patti Cohenour) and her daughter Clara (Erin Mackey). Margaret simply wanted a break from the loveless marriage with her husband; Clara wanted to be in a constant state of awe with regard to the city’s history and the charm of the Italian people. But when a random act of fate occurs—a gust of wind blowing Clara’s hat away and being caught by the young passionate Frabrizio (David Burnham), both fall head over heels in love. Fabrizio’s family is overjoyed; Margaret is deeply concerned. Unbeknownst to the Italian family, Clara is “special” in a way that might result in pain and tragedy for all parties involved, especially for the fragile Clara.
The Light in the Piazza is very much like the old musicals of the 50s and early 60s, where the stories had elements of fun, class, and a type of sweet innocence that is rarely produced in this day in age. The collaboration between playwright Lucas and lyricist Guettel is pure delight where the chemistry of all the characters brew and simmer at a steady pace and the dialogue for the musical and nonmusical numbers—both the English and Italian speaking scenes—flow effortlessly without the pacing slowing down in any way. And Kent Nicholson’s masterful direction (along with the Dennis Castellano’s musical direction) captures the romantic Italian flavor as though the audience was actually in Florence during that time (special mention to Neil Patel’s stunning set design, especially the use of the classical statue replicas).
The acting from every single cast member is perfection, and it is very evident that all of these talented artists are having fun on the stage. Cohenour, who played Margaret as an alternate in the Broadway version of Piazza, deftly shows the paternal, protective nature of her character without being overbearing or unlikable. Margaret has very good reasons to be concerned over Clara’s welfare and Cohenour carves each facet of Margaret’s dimensionality as though she were a Roman sculptress. Her comedic timing and wit is smooth, her scenes with Mackey’s Clara are poignant, and her chemistry with Perry Ojeda (who portrays Fabrizio’s father with a classy, suave style that was very reminiscent of his charismatic turn as El Gallo in last season’s production of The Fantasticks. But he adds a world-weary charm that is just as endearing, if not more so) is tender, especially their duet of “Let’s Walk,” which is the best musical number in the show.
Mackey’s Clara is a mercurial combination of sweetness, fragility and territorial protectiveness, especially when Franca (a powerhouse performance by Melina Kalomas, especially during her solo number, “The Joy You Feel”) flirts with her brother-in-law Fabrizio in order to make her doltish husband Giuseppe (a hilarious Christopher Newell) jealous. Mackey’s musical solos enhance that damaged innocence even more, but she interlaces it with subtle hints of hope and joy. The romantic chemistry between her and Burnham’s Fabrizio is pure magic. Burnham, who played Fabrizio in the National Tour of Piazza, is a dynamo by combining a romantic, masculine presence with slight humorous touches of insecurity. It’s a delicate tightrope balancing act that Burnham achieves in this role, also adding layers of passionate energy, especially during his solo number of “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” which received the strongest applause out of all the musical numbers in the production. Both Mackey and Burnham work well together, and that is the main ingredient for any type of successful romantic story. With this wonderful cast and flawless direction, The Light in the Piazza will prove to be a key ingredient to the success of South Coast Repertory’s Golden Anniversary Season.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
The Light in the Piazza opened January 24-February 23, 2014
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Photos by Debora Robinson