Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Light in the Piazza and Oliver!

The 2005 Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza was sumptuous and expansive, and was produced on a large thrust stage at Lincoln Center that convincingly replicated its main setting, the sprawling Piazza della Signoria in Florence. The new production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company can't hope to replicate that grandeur, but in many ways it gives us something just as good: an intimacy that makes the story even more moving.

It's 1953, and a mother from North Carolina named Margaret Johnson is vacationing in Florence with her 26-year-old daughter Clara. An Italian boy named Fabrizio falls in love with Clara at first sight, and enlists his entire family to help him woo her. The family takes to Clara, and pretty soon everybody is talking marriage. Margaret, however, is opposed to the romance, but can't bring herself to tell the family the reason why. Clara's secret, and the way it affects Margaret and her relationship with the family, is what creates the play's dramatic conflict.

Craig Lucas' book (based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer) is effective in its blend of romance and humor, showing us several couples at different ages and contrasting stages of romance. Yet it's the score by Adam Guettel that makes the show so distinctive. Stylistically, it's closer to opera than traditional Broadway: It's full of wide interval leaps, unusual harmonies and arresting time signature shifts, plus lyrics that usually eschew rhymes for thoughtful and abstract (although sometimes too florid) poetry. You may not remember the melodies when you leave the theater, but you'll be haunted by the music's uncommon and arresting ambiance. (Even the songs performed in Italian work—they add to the naturalness of the mood, and you never feel as if you missed anything.)

The story is a small one, and director Joe Calarco's decision to stage it with a small cast—eight actors, with some handling multiple roles—pays off. Calarco stages a few crucial numbers in front of a red proscenium curtain, and actors sometimes enter through the aisles, emphasizing the way the characters take the audience into their confidence as they tell the story. (The opening moments of each act—showing Clara moving a curtain to symbolize her arrival, then departure, from Florence—are bold theatrical gambits that work beautifully.) Michael Fagin's scenic design evokes Florence with only a few curtains, some rolling arches, and a series of benches. R. Lee Kennedy's lighting skillfully enhances the mood, particularly during the title song; and Anne Kennedy's costumes define the characters well (especially with Fabrizio, who is constantly changing his wardrobe as he attempts to look more mature).

Piazza seems lighter and more delicate in this treatment than it did in the New York production, and not just because it's in a smaller theater. As the young lovers, Whitney Bashor and Matthew Scott have a lovely gentleness and an infectious glee that might have gotten lost on a larger stage. The comic moments come across strongly here, especially from Fran Prisco, who excels at exasperated humor as Fabrizio's brother; Kyra Miller, as Prisco's jealous wife; and Charles Pistone, as Fabrizio's dignified and demanding father. (The entire cast sings Guettel's demanding music flawlessly.)

But it's Sherri L. Edelen who makes the strongest impression as Margaret. As she narrates and takes the audience into her confidence, we see her armor crack, as her notions of what's best for her daughter—and herself—get upended. As her daughter becomes an independent woman, so, for the first time, does Margaret, and Edelen handles the transition with skill. It's a transformation worth watching, just like nearly everything else in this gorgeous and touching production.

The Light in the Piazza runs through December 13, 2009 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $51 to $69, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at, or by visiting the box office.

Hugh Panaro

Unlike with The Light in the Piazza, you'll definitely remember the melodies when you leave the theater after Oliver! In fact, you probably know most of them already—but don't let that deter you from seeing Lionel Bart's 1960s musical, now being given a breezy and entertaining production at the Walnut Street Theatre.

True, Bart's score isn't the most sophisticated ever heard in a musical; it relies too much on the 19th century English music hall style for simplistic, repetitive numbers like "Oom-Pah-Pah" and "Consider Yourself." Yet it's easy to see why so many of the songs have become standards: They're incredibly catchy, and they work very well in the context of the show. And Bart's score is far from mindless—it has sharp satiric songs, cute character numbers, and powerful ballads that would be a challenge to any singer. Bart's script manages to compress the major plot points of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" into two and a half hours. It sometimes sacrifices clarity for speed, and doesn't always master the precarious balance between gloom and hope, yet it still does a nice job of telling a dark, complicated story without being depressing or confusing.

Director Mark Clements' production moves swiftly and makes good use of a talented ensemble. Hugh Panaro radiates devious joy as Fagin, the leader of a notorious pack of preteen pickpockets. He's clearly having fun, and he and his urchins have a good camaraderie. Anthony Lawton is suitably menacing as the ruthless Bill Sikes, while Janine DiVita gives the show heart as his girlfriend Nancy; she belts out "As Long As He Needs Me" with remarkable power. There's also good comic support from local favorites Scott Greer and Mary Martello as the battling Mr. and Mrs. Bumble.

The Walnut has gone all out with this show, which features an imposing set design by Todd Edward Ivins plus a huge cast: thirty-one adults and forty children (two alternating casts with twenty children in each). Sam Preston and RJ Fattori played Oliver and the Artful Dodger on the night I attended (they alternate with Gregory Smith and Brandon O'Rourke, respectively). Both were suitably adorable, with Fattori showing off an impressive voice. Amazingly, the stage never seems overcrowded, and while Mary Jane Houdina's choreography may be unexciting, it doesn't get in the way of the storytelling.

Happy but not too sappy, the Walnut's Oliver! is a jolly good show.

Oliver! runs through January 10, 2010 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $70, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at or, or by visiting the box office.

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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