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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The Light in the Piazza at Intiman Theatre

Also see David's interview with Victoria Clark

The development of new musicals by major talents is certainly to be encouraged and nurtured in this less than golden age of the American musical theatre. And it is encouraging that there is so much right about playwright/director Craig Lucas and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel's The Light In The Piazza, which just opened its world premiere production at Seattle's Intiman Theatre in association with Chicago's Goodman Theatre where it will play next year. One can only hope Lucas and Guettel can see not only the production's present merits, but also look closely at fixing some rather troubling flaws. For even now, this light is one worthy of shining far beyond Seattle.

The Light in the Piazza
Steven Pasquale (Fabrizio Naccarelli) and
Celia Keenan-Bolger (Clara Johnson) with Christian Hebel (violinist)

Based on Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novel, this open-hearted romantic fable is set primarily in Florence, Italy summer of 1953, where Margaret Johnson, an amiable, middle-aged American woman from the South is touring with her lovely, childlike daughter, Clara. Clara finds instant true love with a charming young business class Italian, Fabrizio Nacarelli, and they are quickly on the road to matrimony. But Margaret is angst-ridden over whether or not to disclose to her soon to be in-laws a childhood injury which left the twenty-six year old Clara mentally frozen at a level of emotional and sexual maturity just approaching puberty. Ultimately, despite protestations from Margaret's emotionally and physically distant tobacco magnate husband Roy (via long distance call), Margaret decides to keep this information from the Nacarelli's. Though a blow-up with Fabrizio's Father seems to acknowledge that he has caught on, there is never really any doubt that Clara and Fabrizio will get to the church as planned and Margaret will ensure for her daughter the happiness she herself feels cheated out of in her marriage.

Lucas's script, told from Margaret's point of view and allowing her to step out and address the audience and comment on the action, is funny, tender and has no villains in it, only easily confused, lonely, easily hurt people. Yet only Margaret, Clara and Fabrizio - and to a lesser degree, Fabrizio's father and sister in-law - are clearly dramatized and musicalized.

Guettel, whose strengths as an emotionally charged composer clearly outdistance his lyrics in this work, gives Margaret a riveting number called "Dividing Day" to lament her own marriage's failure, though her confession aria to an Irish priest seems to wander awkwardly in from opera land. This tendency in Guettel's score occurs rather too often in other places in the show for us not to wonder if Light might be better served as a through sung piece of theatre. Clara and Fabrizio's establishing numbers - "The Beauty Is" for her, "Passegiatta" for him - give us a clear idea of who they are and what draws them to one another, and the latter is one of the show's finest creations. The music to the couple's sweeping declaration of love, "Say It Somehow," is the stuff that chicken skin is made of, though Guettel's reliance on using vocalese when the lovers' language barriers thwart them feels like he ran out of words, not that they did. They each have a strong number in act two: her delicately haunting title song and his declaration of unwavering passion for Clara in "Love to Me."

But there is nothing soaring or satisfying when the Nacarelli family sings and interacts with the Johnsons. Varied assortments of accents and sound amplification problems are in part to blame, but Guettel's music for them is dissonant, unattractive and didactic.

The success of the actors in their roles rather parallels the strength of what has been given them. Victoria Clark is the unqualified success story in this production, making Margaret a lovable, slightly domineering woman with a sense of humor that keeps her focused on the possibility of making her dream for Clara a reality. And Clark's vocal prowess points up why she is a much in demand Broadway regular. Celia Keenan-Bolger is quite a find as Clara, with the acting chops of (and some physical resemblance to) a young Patty Duke, and a unique vocal quality that fits Clara ideally. Steven Pasquale, so good as the object of Roger Rees' unrequited affections in A Man of No Importance at Lincoln Center this fall, is unrecognizable but just as satisfying as the starry eyed Fabrizio.

The Light in the Piazza
Mark Harelik (Signor Naccarelli) and
Victoria Clark (Margaret Johnson)

As Fabrizio's father Signor Nacarelli, Mark Harelik gives a strong performance, even when his accent is so accomplished we lose lines as a result. But he and Clark need a better musical moment together, especially so late in act two, than Guettel has devised in the peculiar "Let's Walk." Kelli O'Hara as Franca Nacarelli, wife of Fabrizio's philandering brother Guiseppe, avoids being tripped up by her Italian accent and makes more of her solo song moment "The Joy You Feel" than the song gives her. In the missed opportunities category, luminous veteran Broadway soprano Patti Cohenour is mostly confined to impeccably observed reactions to what others are saying as Fabrizio's mother. She needs a musical number of her own - duet, solo, whatever - to justify her presence, though a moment when she too breaks the fourth wall as Clark's character does is unquestionably the comic highlight of the evening. Glenn Seven Allen is a handsome cipher as Guiseppe, and Robert Shampain manages to be enough of a chameleon to play a variety of roles, including Roy Johnson and the Irish priest with aplomb.

Lucas as director can surely take credit for guiding his actors, but must also take the blame for an overall sluggishness to the proceedings that make a two hour plus intermission show feel a good bit longer than that. In a danceless show, Pat Graney could still have helped provide the show with a greater fluidity of movement. Conductor/pianist Ted Sperling leads a quintet of skilled on-stage musicians and, with Guettel, provided the handsome orchestrations.

Loy Arcenas' set is a filmy, dreamy surreal suggestion of Italy, and one of the best aspects of the production. Catherine Zuber's costumes, especially for Margaret and Clara, are lovely period recreations, and Christopher Akerlind's lighting design is a triumph of taste and restraint.

I will eagerly revisit A Light in the Piazza later in its run here in Seattle. It feels like a show that, with the right adjustments, additions, and possibly Lucas deciding to release directorial reins and just be the playwright, could be an enduring gem of a chamber musical to beguile the romantic in audience members for years to come.

The Light in the Piazza runs through July 19 at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St. at Seattle Center. For tickets ( $35.50-$45.00) call (206) 266-1900, or on-line at www.intiman.org.


Photos: : Chris Bennion




- David-Edward Hughes



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