Broadway's 2005 Best Musical winner, The Light in the Piazza, is in good hands with the tour visiting Pittsburgh this week. With sets (slightly modified for a proscenium stage) and costumes that are virtually identical to those in the original Lincoln Center production, those who missed the New York production should not feel they are "settling" for a watered down touring production.
Adam Guettel's score is not a traditional musical theatre one (far afield from those written by his grandfather, Richard Rodgers); described best as "quasi-operatic", it is at times lush, earthy and ethereal. The lyrics often come from the inner thoughts of the characters, with a vocabulary that does not always fit the character. However, the interesting twist of using Italian and broken English for the Italian characters emphasizes the cultural differences present, and is suprisingly successful, thanks in great part to the performances and Bartlett Sher's first-rate direction.
The musical set in 1953 Italy features Craig Lucas's book based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer, which was also adapted as a film in 1962, and follows North Carolinians Margaret Johnson (Christine Andreas) and her daughter Clara (Elena Shaddow) on their trip abroad to Florence and Rome. Though in her twenties, Clara is childlike in nature and is very closely supervised by her loving mother. When they encounter young, handsome and charming Fabrizio Naccarelli (David Burnham) in a piazza, there is an immediate connection between the young Florentine and Clara. As he pursues her and Margaret tries to stop the development of their relationship, we meet the whole Naccarelli family: Fabrizio's parents Signor (played at the performance reviewed by understudy Craig Bennett) and Signora Naccarelli (Evangelia Kinglsey); brother Giuseppe (Jonathan Hammond) and his wife Franca (Wendi Bergamini). The language barrier between the two families (Signor Naccarelli is fluent in English, but the rest know only a few words and phrases) contributes to the Naccarellis not perceiving "something different" about Clara. Margaret's concern for her daughter's future creates a roller coaster ride for the two young adults and their relationship, as she makes decisions that affect everyone, including herself.
Christine Andreas is magnificent as Margaret Johnson. The petite actress with a lovely voice, full of emotion, brings a slightly different take on the role, compared to the original Margaret, Tony-winner Victoria Clark who was equally stunning in her own way. Andreas' Margaret is a little more frenetic, a little more approachable. I found more comedy in her portrayal. she is quite captivating and sings the role beautifully. As Clara, Shaddow is very good, in a role that must be challenging: the actress must evoke a naive quality in a way that can be perceived as charming to other characters. She has a strong yet mellifluous voice and is very successful in this role.
Burnham is perfection as Fabrizio, capturing the youthful exuberance and open heart of this young man in love. His singing voice is gorgeous and expressive. Bennett does a wonderful job in the role of Signor Naccarelli. A mix of gruff and charm, it's important that he show a bit of vulnerability near the end of the play. Bennett does that and more in his accomplished performance. The characters of Giuseppe and Franca are important in that they show the troubled nature of a "normal" couple's relationship while also providing a good bit of comic relief. Both Hammond and Bergamini do a nice job here in roles that still carry the nuances provided by the original cast members (Michael Berresse and Sarah Uriarte Berry). Gergamini is enjoyable as the Italian mother.
Michael Yeargan's award winning sets function smoothly as one of those "I can't believe this is a tour production set" designs. Combined with Catharine Zuber's gorgeous costume designs and Chrisopher Akerlind's lighting (both Tony winners), the atmosphere of the 1950s Italy street scenes is expertly created. The sound at the Benedum is very nicely accomplished (Sound by Acme Sound Partners), and the orchestra - of a size equal to the Broadway version - does justice to the lovely score throughout.
All in all, this is a solid and enjoyable touring production of The Light in the Piazza. In Pittsburgh from February 20-25, it continues in Hershey, PA this week, then on to Philadelphia, Columbus OH and Minneapolis. For more information on Pittsburgh shows, visit pgharts.org. For more information on this tour, visit www.piazzaontour.com/.