In one of the major 99-seat theater coups of the year, Covina Center For The Performing Arts obtained the rights to stage the L.A. Regional Premiere of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s extraordinary The Light In The Piazza, winner of a deserved six Tony awards in 2005. Now, in one of the biggest theatrical triumphs of this or any year, CCPA’s production, superbly directed by New York/L.A.-based Brady Schwind and starring three of Broadway’s most talented performers, recreates the magic of the Lincoln Center original on a warmer and more intimate scale.

Piazza is based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer, which became a 1962 film starring Olivia DeHavilland as Margaret Johnson, a woman who travels to Florence, Italy with her beautiful 20ish daughter Clara. There, mother and child meet la famiglia Naccarelli, both find romance, and one of them finds love.  The New York production added to the novella’s plot the complex and utterly gorgeous melodies of composer/lyricist Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers), a Tony-winning performance by leading lady Victoria Clark, and the most exquisite scenic, costume, and lighting design of the season.

The good news about CCPA’s 99-seat re-envisioning of the Broadway original is that Christopher Callen’s performance as Margaret comes darned close to Clark’s and, even scaled-down, the design elements do too. Those who saw either the New York production or the National Tour (I saw the former once and the latter three times) will not be disappointed by this absolutely splendid regional premiere.

From the moment the curtain rises in the elegantly remodeled and refurbished Covina Center theater, we are transported to 1953 Florence aka Firenze, and the light which shines on the Piazza della Signoria is every bit as radiant at that which shone at Lincoln Center. Vali Tirsoaga’s set design has the same spacious airiness of Tony-winner Michael Yeargan’s, and though most scene changes are made by cast members, CCPA’s stage does have a hydraulic lift used particularly effectively in Act 2’s “Aiutami,” which has the entire Naccarelli family rising to eye level in full crisis mode. Chris Cotone’s lighting design may even surpass Christopher Akerlind’s Tony-winning original, bathing the set with the most glorious sunlight ever, and in one particularly stunning moment in the title song, filling the entire theater with so much “luce” that the audience gasps aloud.  Larry Watts’ gorgeous 50s costumes (Margaret and Clara change outfits more times than I could count) for the entire cast recall Tony-winner Catherine Zuber’s originals without being carbon copies.

The Light In The Piazza is about much more than design, however, and the Broadway-plus-local cast assembled here give standing ovation (and Ovation Award-deserving) performances, beginning with Callen’s warm, shrewd, loving Margaret.  Whether protecting her daughter from the attentions of an infatuated Italian youth or overwhelmed by a landslide of kisses from the oh-so- demonstrative Naccarellis or conniving for her daughter’s happiness with offers of a five-to-fifteen-thousand-dollar dowry, Callen’s work here is as rich and multi-layered as is her soprano in “Dividing Day” and the climactic “Fable.”  

Matching her every step of the way is Brooke Tansley (of Broadway’s Hairspray and Beauty And The Beast) as Clara.  I’ve seen three other Claras, including Tony-nominated Kelli O’Hara, and Tansley may well be the best of the bunch.  Clara has a secret, you see, one that even she doesn’t understand, and Tansley’s bubbly childlike joy at the very un-Winston-Salem-like beauties of Florence (“That’s a completely naked statue!”) reveal the actress’s gifts and absolute rightness for the part. Vocally, Tansley couldn’t be better in “The Beauty Is,” “Say It Somehow,” and the title song, and her endearing and heart-breaking performance is equally stunning. 

Craig D’Amico, who did some of last year’s most powerful work as the dour, doomed Leo Frank in the Schwind-directed Parade, does a complete turn-around as Fabrizio Naccarelli, the innocent romantic who falls head-over-heels in love at first sight with Clara, “since that moment in the square When your hat is carried in the air, just so you can chase it, just so I can be there.”  D’Amico captures Fabrizio’s youthful exuberance, has great chemistry with Tansley, and sings “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” “Passeggiata,” and “Love To Me” in a soaring tenor rarely heard on our stages.

This Light In The Piazza really belongs to the women, however, and in addition to Callen and Tansley, there’s the statuesque Abigail Kinnahan doing perhaps her best work ever as Franca, the strong and sassy wife of serial cheater Giuseppe Naccarelli, and local musical theater vet Lois Bourgon as Signora Naccarelli.  As with other Francas before her (the role is a plum!), donning a black wig and tight, sexy 1950s dresses transforms Kinnahan into a Florentine spitfire, and just wait till she hits the high notes in the bitter “The Joy You Feel.” Bourgon makes the most of her every moment as Fabrizio and Giuseppe’s mother, and when (in “Auitami”) she turns to the audience with, “I don’t speak English, but I have to tell you what’s going on,” it’s a moment to be savored, and talk about hitting high notes!

Erik Snodgrass is excellent as the philandering Giuseppe (it’s easy to see why Franca keeps taking this charming cheater back), David Fairchild brings dignity, romance, and Old World refinement to Signor Naccarelli, and Michael Tatlock’s brief appearances as Margaret’s stateside husband Roy paint a three-dimensional picture of a man and a marriage.

In Schwind (whose brilliant direction of Parade earned him a spot on StageSceneLA’s Best of 2007-8 lists), Piazza gets the inspired director it deserves. Shwind has an eye to the visual—notice the various tableaux of Florentine townspeople in the opening “Statues And Stories”, or the suitably melodramatic poses of the Naccarelli family in “Aiutami,” or the counterpoint of an Italian mother and very young daughter in the background as Margaret recalls Clara’s childhood. The scene in which Clara loses her way in the maze of Firenze by night is the most powerful I’ve ever seen it staged and played.

Any gripes I might have are few (the Italian-speaking/singing characters could use a tad more dialect coaching, songs are ever so occasionally off the beat (perhaps due to the orchestra and conductor being out of sight), and D’Amico can’t pass for 20, important only because a major plot development revolves around Fabrizio’s age) and they are more than outweighed by the overall magnificence of the production.

Musical director Patrick Copeland leads an eight-member orchestra recreating on a smaller but no less beautiful scale Piazza’s Tony-winning orchestrations. Kudos also for Copeland’s fine sound design. There’s not much dancing in the show, but what there is benefits from Imara Quinonez’s choreography, especially a snazzy “American Dancing” with Giuseppe teaching younger brother Fabrizio how the Yanks do it.  The choral harmonies are exquisite performed by the gifted ensemble which is completed by Marisa Copeland, Matt Ervien (Tour Guide), Kärin Frasier, Mark Gamez (Priest), Madelyn Jones, Willa Reynolds, and Taylor Tracey.

A front-runner for Best Intimate Musical of the year, The Light In The Piazza is must-see theater for anyone in love with the art form. 

(Note: The role of Margaret is now being played by the always wonderful Victoria Strong.)

Covina Center For The Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave., Covina.

–Steven Stanley
January 23, 2009

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