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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Light in the Piazza
Arizona State University
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Evil Dead: The Musical, The Music of Billy Joel starring Michael Cavanaugh and Rathmines Road


Mary Ott and Kathlynn Rodin
Photo by Tim Trumble
The Light in the Piazza is an emotionally rich musical that focuses on the lengths a mother goes in order to protect, while also ensuring the happiness of, her daughter. Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera presents a wonderful production of this Tony-winning musical with an exceptional cast, beautiful creative elements, and assured direction that derive both passion and pathos from the heartbreaking and heartwarming story.

With a Tony nominated book by Craig Lucas and a Tony winning score by Adam Guettel, the plot follows Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara, who are vacationing in Italy in the summer of 1953. When Clara meets and falls in love with a young Italian man named Fabrizio Naccarelli, the over protective Margaret does the best she can to shield Clara from what she believes will be an unpleasant outcome. On the surface, The Light in the Piazza looks like a fairly ordinary romantic musical, but the simple story takes on a deeper meaning when secrets are revealed and we discover that Clara is unlike other beautiful young women her age and why Margaret is so concerned about her wellbeing and so desperately tries to protect her from any possibility of disappointment in life.

Based upon Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella, which was adapted into the 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland as Margaret and Yvette Mimieux as Clara, the musical is a lush and romantic personal story that ultimately changes the lives of both Margaret and Clara. While the story is fairly simple and there are a few minor plot points that have been eliminated from both Spencer's original work and the film screenplay for the musical, Lucas' book manages to expand upon elements of the original material to provide added depth to the characters. Guettel's score is lush, sweeping, romantic, and operatic in parts while also providing several introspective solos.

Where the film was able to beautifully evoke the unspoken feelings of the characters via close-ups, Lucas' book has Margaret speak to the audience a few times to provide important information, and Guettel's lyrics and his character-specific songs, specifically Margaret's two solos, "Dividing Day" and "Fable" and the title song which Clara sings, are exceptional in how they perfectly get across the characters' thoughts and emotions.

ASU's production is beautifully sung with impressive acting by the entire cast under Robert Kolby Harper's perceptive and confident direction. Mary Ott does an amazing job in depicting why Margaret is so fiercely protective of her daughter. We see, through Ott's even measured line delivery, the care Margaret goes through to not over-excite Clara and, through her emotionally infused singing, we understand why Margaret is also intent on shielding Clara from any pain. Yet we also see how the character wrestles with the choices she has made and the guilt she has from those decisions. Through Ott's perfect performance, we understand that Margaret knows what her responsibilities to her daughter are and why she believes the decisions she makes are to ensure what happens is the best for Clara. When Ott delivers her final song, "Fable," it is easy to feel the pain and suffering Margaret has gone through over the years to constantly chaperone Clara away from any hint of disappointment and the emotional toll it's taken on her for doing so.

As the childlike Clara, Kathlynn Rodin beautifully evokes a vibrant young woman who longs for love and a connection with those around her. It's a difficult role to play, since Clara goes from being a sweet and innocent young woman who is overly friendly to everyone she meets in one moment to an unruly and somewhat petulant child the next, while also instilling a lovely sense of charm and a growing desire for a sensual connection. Rodin navigates her way through the wide-ranging emotions of the character with ease. Her solo of "The Light in the Piazza" is elegant and introspective.

With a gorgeous singing voice, Jacob Herrera delivers Fabrizio's songs with a beautiful clarity, instilling charm and excitability in this young man along with a humorous touch of torment and tenderness that sometimes comes when a man falls head over heels in love with a young woman with an overprotective mother. Rodin and Herrera create a realistic and genuine young couple the audience can care for and want to see succeed.

As Fabrizio's passionate, loud and fiery family, who immediately welcome Clara into their family without knowing her secret, Kade Bailey, Molly Cox, Vaibu Mohan and Cade Trotter create radiant and sophisticated characters. Bailey is quite elegant and charming as Fabrizio's father who forms an interesting bond with Margaret. In a smaller role, Teddy Ladley is stoic and solid as Roy, Margaret's husband and Clara's father, who doesn't always agree with Margaret on how she treats Clara.

The creative aspects of the production are stylish and attractive, including Alfredo Escarcega's elegant and very effective set design, which uses several large rotating columns and a few other set elements, and gorgeous, period-perfect costumes by Jacqueline Benard. Lighting designer Kristen Peterson delivers some rich and colorful visual images. Music director Greg Paladino derives stunning vocals from the cast and the large orchestra, who all sound excellent under Connor Adams' sound design.

tHE Light in the Piazza is a compelling musical full of passion yet also one that depicts the emotional pain that relationships, both romantic and parental, sometimes inflict. The beauty of the original novella, the film, and this musical adaptation is in how the deep love and connection a mother has with her child is elegantly depicted and in how a story that borders on heartbreak and disappointment can evolve into one that is ultimately uplifting and full of hope. ASU's production is superb.

The Light in the Piazza runs through October 6, 2019, at Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera, Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the ASU School of Music, 50 E. Gammage Pkwy., Tempe AZ. Tickets and information are available at music.asu.edu.

Director/ Choreographer: Robert Kolby Harper
Music Director: Greg Paladino
Scenic Designer/Technical Director: Alfredo Escarcega
Costume Designer: Jacqueline Benard
Lighting Design: Kristen Peterson
Hair and Makeup: Sharon Jones
Sound Designer: Connor Adams
Props Master: Kristen Peterson
Stage Manager: Kate Leonard

Cast:
Margaret Johnson: Mary Ott
Clara Johnson: Kathlynn Rodin
Fabrizio Naccarelli: Jacob Herrera
Signor Naccarelli: Kade Bailey
Signora Naccarelli: Molly Cox
Franca Naccarelli: Vaibu Mohan
Giuseppe Naccarelli: Cade Trotter
Roy: Teddy Ladley
Priest: Bruno Streck Rodrigues
Male Ensemble: Teddy Ladley, Robbie Nelson, Bruno Streck Rodrigues, Xingyu Wang
Female Ensemble: Ellie Barrett, Annie Heartney, Lina Forero, Isabel Julazadeh


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