Los Angeles / Regional Theater Review: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa)

by Joel Beers on February 10, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

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LIGHT SHINES IN SCR’S PIAZZA

On general principle, it’d be very easy to dislike The Light in The Piazza. Let’s say you don’t consider stories about rich people in crisis having any relevance to you. Or if you chaff at the notion of those wealthy types traveling to Europe and falling in love with a country or its people. Or if you think musicals and everyone associated with them deserve to be exiled to a gulag.

The cast of South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA

Any preconceptions aside, this 2005 piece is surprisingly powerful and emotionally nuanced, thanks in large part to Craig Lucas’ very affecting book, which is complemented by Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics. In the first act, the story appears to be about nothing more than a wealthy American mother and daughter experiencing First World Problems in 1953 Italy, but the second act reveals a universal tale about people regardless of income bracket: mothers who want the best for their children, but are afraid of unleashing them into the big, grown-up world; and children who just want to follow the turbulent, intoxicating rhythms of their hearts and don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Patti Cohenour and Erin Mackey in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel.

Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, the straight-forward story has Margaret Johnson (Patti Cohenour) and her daughter Clara (Erin Mackey) vacationing in Florence, a city of light and statues. Margaret is attempting to resuscitate the memories of her first time in Italy with her husband, Roy (Martin Kildare)—who remains home in the states—sharing it this time with her only child. Except where Margaret strives to educate Clara about the history of Florence, the ebullient teen-ager (who, it turns out, really isn’t) just wants to experience it. When she stumbles across a 20-year-old Florentine, Fabrizio (David Burnham), sparks fly. They fall deliriously in love, and Margaret has to wield every arrow in her protective maternal quiver to counter Cupid’s.

David Burnham and Erin Mackey in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel.

Early on, it seems that Margaret is overbearing, if not outright delusional about her daughter’s brewing romance. But things are rarely what they seem at first glance in this piece.  There are reasons, very serious reasons, why Margaret is so protective and, as the story unfolds, there are also very serious reasons why she brought her daughter to Italy in the first place. And her choice is a Big One. Does she allow her daughter the opportunity to experience the happiness she never experienced in love, or does she allow the rationality of the real world to intrude upon a dream that could end terribly?

Perry Ojeda, Mary Gutzi, Christopher Newell, Melina Kalomas, David Burnham, Erin Mackey and John-David Keller in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of The Light In the Piazza, book by Criag Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel.

The interesting part about the structure of this piece is that it’s a combination of opera, American musical theater, and a straight play, but it’s really none of them. It’s operatic in the sense that several of the songs and scenes are delivered in Italian, and that there are no big musical numbers to speak of. It’s musical theater, in that characters break into song, but there is very little choreography and the songs don’t really advance the story as much as comment upon it. And it’s a straight play, in that the book is vitally important, but, again, characters sing at the drop of gelato.

David Burnham and Erin Mackey in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel.

But rather than an ungainly mix of different forms brusquely rubbing against each other, the mélange works. A great deal of that has to with Kent Nicholson’s graceful production, Lap Chi Chu’s ravishing light design (it isn’t called The Light in the Piazza for nothing) and exceptional performances all around, including Fabrizio’s father (Perry Ojeda), mother (Mary Gutzi), brother (Christopher Newell), and his sister-in-law (Melina Kalomas).

Patti Cohenour, Christopher Newell, Perry Ojeda, Mary Gutzi and David Burnham in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of The Light in the Piazza, book by Criag Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel.

But it’s Lucas’ book that really shines. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. South Coast Repertory does many things well: Its productions are always sleek, its actors very pretty, the credentials of the cast and crew always stellar. But for 50 years, its main crusade has been championing the power of words, both in the classic playwrights it favors (Shakespeare, Moliere and Shaw, among others) and the scores of commissions and new plays it has green-lighted. Lucas, whose most lauded play, the Pulitzer-Prize finalist Prelude to a Kiss, received its world premiere at SCR in 1990, also received a Tony Nomination for his Piazza book, and it was well deserved.

Perry Ojeda and Patti Cohenour in South Coast Repertory's 2014 p

So it makes perfect sense to bring back a favorite child who was helped so much in his development as a writer by SCR, back to its stage. You may not walk out of The Light in the Piazza remembering one of its lushly orchestrated tunes (beautifully redacted here into a chamber quintet), but you will walk out thinking about the emotional impact of the show, an impact that isn’t delivered in bombast or glitzy production values, but in real language.

And when’s the last time you said that about a musical?

photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

The Light in the Piazza
South Coast Rep, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on February 23, 2014
for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit SCR

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