Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Light in the Piazza
Also see Richard's review of The Robber Bridegroom
In recent years, R-S artistic director Christina Rios has staged ambitious local premiers of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, First Lady Suite, and In The Heights. Each show was artistically demanding, but each production was brimming with highly accomplished singers and actors, making this company the gold standard for theater-on-a-budget.
You may have seen the original Broadway production's PBS telecast in 2006 (yes, twelve years ago) of The Light in the Piazza, by Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics), which was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning six, for its original New York cast and crew. (Mr. Guettel also wrote the musical
Floyd Collins.) And even here, on a simpler set with local actors at the Marcelle Theatre, the results are stirring and beautiful. From the opening harp solo by Terri Langerak, we're swept up in what began as Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella about a well-to-do North Carolina matron (played here by the always impeccable Kay Love as Margaret Johnson) and her developmentally disabled grown daughter (the stunningly soulful Macia Noorman as Clara), as they tour Italy in the 1950s.
Of course, there's something infantilizing about almost any theatrical musical, something that encourages a presumption of innocence in us allwhat we usually call "the willing suspension of disbelief." In The Light in the Piazza, we are led through southern Europe in a swirl of ravishing vocalese, which turns one family's hard realities into something like a storybook fantasy, where the tools of the heart manage events that no man's (or woman's) brain ever could.
And please pardon me for first singling out Myriam Colombo, for her work as the production's Italian language coach. The Florentine family on stage, featuring coruscating leading man Tiélere Cheatem (as Fabrizio), is delightfully romantic, and seamlessly confident in their workas is everyone in this show. (Mr. Cheatem is also a flashy dancer.) Just don't be shocked to find that R-S Theatrics has done some color-blind castingit's St. Louis, after all, and sometimes you just have to use a little imagination to get any black actors at all represented in a play (as you should). The city itself is 50% black. And thank goodness director Rios found Mr. Cheatem, and Michael Lowe as his brother Guiseppe (last seen on the Marcelle Theatre stage in New Line's Yeast Nation). Casting two black actors as stylish, impetuous young Italians also helps reinforce an American's sense of alienation, especially for a woman in Margaret Johnson's position, with an attractive daughter.
Of course, there's a big family secret, as you may know, involving the developmental disability of Clara. And half the play seems to involve her mother's fumbling attempts to get a word in edgewise with all these very colorful Italians, including Stephanie Merritt as a volcanic wife to Giuseppe, and Jodi Stockton as the sardonic mom. Theoretically, the whole run-time of the show could be cut in half if Mrs. Johnson were just a bit more assertive, and not such a gracious Southern woman of her time.
But she is courtly, in Ms. Love's iteration, and every one of the composer's complex schemes of notes and scales is thoughtfully assayed in her singing, and by Ms. Noorman as well. But, in a moment of extreme heartbreak, this Clara suddenly seems to sing directly from her guts, as something wiser takes control from within. Earlier, she also sings one of the show's most touching songs, "Say It Somehow." You will get teary-eyed, and you will remember that love is real.
Louisa Wimmer is great as a tour guide in Florence, and the splendid comic actor Jason Meyers lurks quietly in the background in this ensemble. Kent Coffel, as always, is sublime: here as the father of the leading man. But how long must we wait to see him in a dramatic leading role, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman?
The staging is 99% perfect, although a stage kiss manages to hide both kissers' faces entirely, despite the fact that they are dead-center on stage. And then there's a lot of symbolic action posed 60% back in the audience, in the center aisle, and frankly I'm too old and stiff-necked (in more ways than one) to follow action even when it's just over my shoulder. But eventually I did turn and see some important playing by Avery Smith (as Young Clara), as all the loose ends are tied up at last. Director Rios dares to annoy, and actually gets away with it.
It could have gone so wrong. There's so much vocalese, instead of lyrics or verbal description, where a mood is extravagantly set simply by the richly cooing chorus. A lesser troupe should be warned against it. And then there are all those failed attempts at clearing things up in the middle of the plotting, which seem just shy of mechanical, before the young lovers go too far. But thanks to director Rios and her cast, this Light In The Piazza scores an artistic bulls-eye. Maybe all that primal, sensual vocalese speaks the language of the heart. And that counts for a lot, when the language is purely romance.
The Light in the Piazza, through August 26, 2018, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.r-stheatrics.com.