An absolutely exquisite production of the century’s most exquisite musical —Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s The Light In The Piazza —has arrived at South Coast Repertory. Need I say more?
1960s movie buffs will recognize the show’s title from the 1962 screen adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella, a film which starred Olivia DeHavilland as Winston-Salem matron Margaret Johnson, Yvette Mimieux as her 26-year-old daughter Clara, and Rosanno Brazzi as the handsome Florentine whose son Fabrizio falls head over heels for Clara at their first meeting in one of Florence’s many piazzas. (Since Fabrizio was played by a very young George Hamilton, it’s no wonder that it was love at first sight for Clara as well.)
Knowing what they say about Italian men, it proves equally unsurprising that Margaret finds herself more than a tad wary of the young man’s interest in her daughter, though her concerns hide a darker truth.
Julius J. Epstein’s screenplay kept Clara’s secret considerably longer than it stays hidden in Lucas’s book, which has Margaret informing us early on exactly why her daughter is, as she so often puts it, “a special child.”
“When Clara was twelve,” Margaret tells us in one of numerous fourth-wall-breaking asides, “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.”
Though Clara looks to all the world like a perfectly well developed young adult, the darker truth is that the accident 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.
Full disclosure requires me to concede that Guettel’s tunes are considerably more “challenging” than 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 Piazza’s melodies 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 a six-show Big Apple vacation back in 2005.
I saw the same production three times locally in its Broadway National Tour, albeit with a different cast, followed by a pair of 99-seat stagings and one full-sized production, but only South Coast Rep’s rivals the Broadway/Touring production for all-around perfection.
The Light In The Piazza won six Tony Awards during its Lincoln Center run, one for Guettel’s music and lyrics, one for its star Victoria Clark, one for Guettel and Ted Sperling’s orchestrations, and three for design—scenic, costume, and lighting.
One of the thrills of seeing The Light In The Piazza at South Coast Rep is the joy of witnessing a quite different yet equally stunning design, and in the case of Leah Piehl’s costumes, creations that surpass the Broadway original.
Even more exciting is the crème de la crème cast assembled on the Segerstrom Stage, performing under the inspired direction of Kent Nicholson, who knows when Piazza should be bright and breezy (and funny), when it should tug at the heartstrings, and when it should do all of this at once.
The magnificent Patti Cohenour graduates from twice-a-week star on Broadway to full-time Margaret at SCR in a performance that may well be the definitive Signora Johnson. The award-winning Broadway vet invests Margaret with wisdom, warmth, a wry sense of humor, bottomless maternal love, and the most gorgeous vocals any production could wish for.
Opposite her is Fullerton born-and-bred Erin Mackey, whose meteoric rise to Broadway leading ladydom took her from classes at Carnegie Mellon to starring roles in four Broadway musicals and now back to Orange County for as enchanting a Clara as any Light In The Piazza lover could possibly desire. For Piazza to work, you have to believe in Clara, believe that Fabrizio could fall forever-in-love at first sight, and believe in the possibility of a happily-ever-after … and with Mackey you do. Plus she sings the part to perfection and is funny to boot.
Speaking of perfection, I’ve seen multiple Fabrizios and no one matches David Burnham’s lovestruck Florentine, a role he understudied on Broadway, originated on tour, and positively dazzles in at South Coast Rep. Burham’s head-over-heels rendition of “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” will have you laughing/crying tears of joy, and giving the L.A./Broadway star the evening’s loudest bravos. Chemistry between Mackey and Burnham is magnetic, Burham’s voice is beyond gorgeous, and the man can still carry off twenty.
Supporting roles are every bit as pitch-perfect as the three leads, from Perry Ojeda’s charmingly suave Signor Naccarelli to Melina Kalomas’s sizzlingly sultry Franca to Christopher Newell’s irresistibly roguish Giuseppe to Mary Gutzi’s deliciously wry Signora Naccarelli, all four of them singing as splendidly as they bring their roles to life. Kalomas’s sardonic, beautifully sung “The Joy You Feel,” Ojeda’s mellifluous duet of “Let’s Walk” with Cohenour, and Gutzi’s show-stopping “Auiutami” are Piazza highlights, with Newell doing some fleet-footed Van Johnson/Fred Astaire steps courtesy of master choreographer Kelly Todd, who gets little to do here, but what she does, she does very well.
Martin Kildare makes the most of the non-singing role of Roy Johnson, his two scenes opposite Cohenhour rich with emotion, and South Coast Rep legend John-David Keller graces the stage in assorted cameo roles.
Last but not least, Joseph Almohaya, Julie Garnyé, Madison Mitchell, and Louis Pardo provide all-around splendid support in a variety of cameos.
Scenic designer Neil Patel makes use of distinctively Florentine columns, statues, and shuttered windows to create a marvelously versatile set, one which Lap Chi Chu lights so breathtakingly, I’m tempted to call this design a career best. Vocals and instrumentals are expertly mixed and amped by sound designer Michael K. Hooker, with musical director Dennis Castellano conducting an onstage orchestra* (glimpsed through window blinds) that may be a chamber version of the Broadway original but doesn’t sound “small” in the least.
And then there are the costumes, by far the most beautiful of the five designs I’ve seen. Piehl not only pays attention to era, nationality, age, and social position, her attention to even the most minor detail is impeccable. Note the color coordination between Margaret’s dresses and Clara’s frocks, and note how Margaret’s color choices and silhouette evolve as Florence casts its spell over the Southern Belle. As for whoever figured out how to make Clara’s hat fly without any visible string attached, he or she deserves special mention simply for that.
Be prepared for some scenes to be played entirely or mostly in Italian, an artistic decision that allows audiences to empathize with Margaret and Clara’s feelings of being strangers in strange land. As for the Italian being spoken, though a mispronounced “certamente” and a few other minor mistakes could stand a tune-up by dialect coach Philip D. Thompson, cast members deserve a pat on the back for sounding as authentic as they do.
Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. John Glore is dramaturg. Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Jamie A. Tucker is stage manager. Additional program credits go to Andrew Knight (assistant dramaturg), Jennifer Ellen Butler (assistant stage manager), Sarah F. Butts (assistant director), Alby Potts (rehearsal accompanist), Katherine Poppen (assistant costume designer), Amanda Zieve (assistant lighting designer), Brian Svoboda (assistant sound designer), and many more.
I’ve seen South Coast Rep’s The Light In The Piazza twice already, and will be returning a third time its closing weekend. That’s how great it is. That’s how much I love it. That’s how much I hope you do too.
*Castellano on piano, Liane Mautner on violin, Melissa Hasin on cello, Ellie Choate on harp, and Tim Christensen on bass.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
February 2, 2014
Photos: Deborah Robinson, except bottom, Ben Horak