Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s The Light In The Piazza is the most exquisite new musical to grace Broadway in the past ten years. How’s that for a reason to catch its first big-stage L.A.-area production since the National Tour played the Ahmanson in 2006—especially one as gorgeous as that of Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities?

1960s movie fans may recognize the show’s title from the 1962 screen adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella, a film which starred Olivia DeHavilland, Yvette Mimieux, Rosanno Brazzi, and a very young George Hamilton. Like the movie, Piazza The Musical takes us along on the Florentine Holiday of Winston-Salem matron Margaret Johnson (Mary Gordon Murray) and her 26-year-old daughter Clara (Michaelia Leigh). A visit to one of Firenze’s many piazzas leads to a chance encounter with 20-year-old Fabrizio Naccarelli (Anthony Carillo), a handsome Italian who falls head over heels for the lovely Clara at their first meeting, and she for him. Not surprisingly, Margaret is more than a tad wary of the young man’s interest in her daughter (you know what they say about Italian men), but her concerns hide a darker truth. As Margaret informs us in one of her numerous asides to the audience, “When Clara was twelve, we rented a Shetland pony for her birthday party. She and her friends were leading the pony around, I turned to get the phone, and the pony kicked her”—an accident which has left the 20something beauty with the mind of a child and Margaret with a question: Dare she allow this vacation romance to progress, or should she protect her daughter from the hurt she is certain will come?

Lucas’s book takes the characters and plot threads from Spencer’s novella and weaves them seamlessly with Guettel’s complex, soaring melodies and poetic lyrics for a musical that should capture the heart of every true romantic. A warning, however. Guettel’s tunes are not the easily accessible ones his grandfather Richard Rodgers wrote with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. In fact, it took this reviewer several listens to the Original Broadway Cast recording for them to “stick,” but once they had, Guettel’s songs proved positively addictive. No wonder, then, that seeing The Light In The Piazza’s original Lincoln Center production in New York ended up the highlight of my Summer 2005 six-show week in The Big Apple.

I later saw the Broadway tour three times, and since then have enjoyed two fine 99-seat productions, but Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities’ represents the show’s first CLO-scale staging in our area, and an excellent one it is.

The Lincoln Center production won six Tony Awards, one for Guettel, one for its star Victoria Clark, one for orchestrations, and three for design—scenic, costume, and lighting. One of the thrills of the CLOSBC production is the entirely new vision its trio of designers bring to these categories. The Broadway set was expansive and spare, lit by as bright a sun as can be imagined on a theater stage. CLOSBC scenic designer Christopher Beyries fills the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center quite splendidly with arches and columns which slide into numerous configurations, set pieces dropping from the rafters to complete the show’s various locales. Darrell J. Clark lights Beyries’ design with rich blues and golds and reds, a radically different look from the Broadway original, but one that proves absolutely stunning. Christa Armendariz’s costumes have the feel of the originals without being carbon copies. John Feinstein scores points as always for his excellent sound design. Musical director Justin Gray conducts an outstanding, string-heavy CLOSBC orchestra to Guettel, Ted Sperling, and Bruce Coughlin’s Tony-winning orchestrations. As for whoever figured out how to make Clara’s hat fly without any visible string attached, they deserve a special design award simply for that.

Director extraordinaire Dan Mojica has assembled a talented cast of Broadway and regional theater vets (and relative newcomers), putting his and their own personal stamp on Piazza and its vivid cast of characters.

At the performance reviewed here, Broadway/L.A. vet (and Tony Award nominee) Murray proved herself the quintessential trouper, battling a cold and coming out triumphant, acting her part with depth and singing with a richness that belied her catarrh. (Note: At a return visit, Murray’s work easily rivaled that of Broadway’s Victoria Clark.)

A wonderful Leigh imbues Clara with warmth, a childlike innocence, and the joy of first love, and sings with the soprano of an angel. (The scene in which Clara finds herself lost at night in the streets of Florence is, in Leigh’s hands, devastating.) Newcomer Carillo makes Fabrizio instantly sympathetic, never once allowing us to doubt his motives in pursuing Clara, and possesses as glorious a tenor as you’re likely to hear on any CLO stage.

Supporting roles are equally well rendered. Randall Dodge’s Signor Naccarelli is so middle-aged-handsome and charming that no woman in Margaret’s shoes could possibly resist, and with that baritone he’d make an equally irresistible Emile de Beque. Perry Ojeda makes Fabrizio’s lothario of an older brother as likable as a cheating husband can be and does some fancy footwork in the show’s one choreography-by-Mojica dance sequence. Melina Kalomas brings fire and passion to the wronged Franca, particularly in the sardonic, beautifully sung “The Joy You Feel.” As Signora Naccarelli, Robin Ann Page gets one of the evening’s funniest lines and the show’s most difficult melody, and she nails them both, the latter with some fabulous high notes. A terrific Sean Harrington and Murray sketch, in two brief, revealing scenes, the portrait of a marriage gone stale.

Be prepared for some of the most dazzling melodies and vocal performances of the year: Murray’s “Dividing Day” and “Fable,” Leigh’s “The Beauty Is” and “The Light In The Piazza,” Carillo’s “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” and “Love To Me,” Leigh and Carillo’s duets of “Passeggiata” and “Say It Somehow” and Murray and Dodge’s of “Let’s Walk.” Be prepared also for some scenes to be played entirely or mostly in Italian. If like this reviewer you understand, pat yourself on the back. If they are all Greek to you, you’ll understand how Margaret and Clara feel in a foreign land. The “Italian’s” accents are far from perfect, but authentic enough not to prove distracting.

Executing numerous tracks quite marvelously are the show’s ensemble performers: Fernando Acevedo, Dane Biren, Janet Krupin (Clara and Franca understudy), Natalie MacInnis, Lindsay Martin, Isaak Olson, Monica Smith (Tour Guide), and Paul Whetstone (Priest).

John W. Calder, III is production stage manager.

Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities, its executive producer James A. Blackman, III, artistic director Stephanie A. Coltrin, and managing director Beyries are to be saluted for challenging their audience with something more sophisticated than yet another 42nd Street or Funny Forum. The light of this Piazza shines brightly indeed.

CLO of South Bay Cities, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.
–Steven Stanley
April 26, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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