Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The Light in the Piazza": A Summer of Love, A Caprice of Fate

The Tuscan city of Florence, in the heart of Italy, is considered the cradle of the Renaissance, the place where Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Galileo, Machiavelli and other artists and thinkers brought about the greatest cultural and scientific advances in Europe since classical antiquity. Renaissance means rebirth, a reference to that new flowering of art, science and political philosophy that signaled Europe’s emergence from the Middle Ages. But for Margaret Johnson and her 26-year-old daughter, Clara, the possibility of a different sort of rebirth greets them when they arrive in Florence in the early summer of 1953.

Erin Mackey is Clara and Patti Cohenour is her mother Margaret
The two women have come to Italy without Roy, Margaret’s husband and Clara’s father, who has stayed behind in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to tend to business. This will be a leisurely mother-daughter vacation, and Margaret looks forward to introducing Clara to the city of “statues and stories,” her favorite place on earth, where she honeymooned with Roy so many years earlier. They will visit the museums and churches, the palaces and piazzas. They will eat good food and drink good wine. They will escape the “corduroy” dreariness of their everyday lives and experience the excitement of a culture completely different from what they have left behind.

But Margaret hasn’t bargained for the caprice of fate, in the form of a gust of wind that blows a hat from Clara’s head into the waiting hands of a young Florentine named Fabrizio Naccarelli. Clara and Fabrizio fall for each other at first sight, and suddenly Fabrizio is everywhere in the city. He “seems to have the mysterious ability to know where we are going before we know!” Margaret observes. Fabrizio attributes that to destiny, but Margaret suspects there’s something more down-to-earth at work. In any case, she does everything she can to nip the romance in the bud. As far as she is concerned, it cannot be allowed to progress.

The reason for her resistance remains vague until halfway into The Light in the Piazza, the musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel on South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage. Even when Margaret tries to explain her objections to Fabrizio’s family, she finds it impossible to say more than “Clara is…Clara…is a special child.” We will ultimately learn what she means by that, but there’s never any question that her opposition springs from a genuine concern for Clara’s well-being.

Erin Mackey is Clara and David Burnham is Fabrizio 
Two kinds of love provide the beating heart of The Light in the Piazza. That between the young innamorati, Clara and Fabrizio; and the love between parent and child, which inevitably must recede and transform when romance comes to the fore. Margaret’s bond with Clara is especially strong, her protective maternal instincts highly tuned. But she has always had a dream for her daughter, the dream of a full, normal life, and that dream now converges with Clara’s own dream, to love and be loved. Margaret begins to wonder if it might be possible for both of them to get what they want. Can the enchanting light of Florence offer up enough magic to let that happen?

“No one with a dream should come to Italy,” Margaret later observes, when hope has given way to disappointment. “No matter how dead and buried you think it is—Italy—this is where Italy will get you.”

But the story of Margaret and Clara, of Clara and Fabrizio, of the light in the piazza and all that it illuminates, is not yet over. The conclusion, when it arrives, will not offer up a simple happy ending. Real life is almost always more complicated than that—and every birth or rebirth contains seeds for future disappointment. But The Light in the Piazza ends with a mother’s wish, and the possibility that, against all odds, it will be granted.

Playwright Craig Lucas Comes Home

Craig Lucas at SCR:  Reckless (1985), Blue Window (1986), Three Postcards (1987), Marry Me a Little (1988) and Prelude to a Kiss (1988).
Thirty years ago a young playwright named Craig Lucas came to SCR for the first time, for the west coast premiere of his play, Reckless.  He returned less than a year later for the West Coast premiere of his Blue Window, whose SCR production eventually transferred to a commercial run in Los Angeles.

Building on those early successes and a simpatico relationship with the playwright, SCR went on to produce a total of five Lucas plays, including the world premieres of his Prelude to a Kiss (which went on to become a Broadway success and a movie with Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan), and his musical, Three Postcards (written with composer Craig Carnelia).  Lucas was named one of the first of SCR’s Associate Artists, an honor reserved for a handful of theatre artists who have made significant contributions to SCR’s work over the years.

Now, after a long absence, Lucas returns to SCR with The Light in the Piazza.  He wrote the book for the musical and also directed its premiere at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 2003.  Although music has always been important to Lucas’s work—Blue Window included a single, very surprising song sung by one of its characters, two-thirds of the way into the play—Piazza became his first big success with the musical theatre form.  It paved the way for many more such opportunities, and today Lucas is one of the most sought-after book writers in the American theatre.  His eclectic array of current projects includes new musicals of King Kong (with a giant mechanized ape puppet in the title role), Amelie (based on the French film), The Outsiders and a new stage version of An American in Paris, as well as an opera and a ballet.  “If you want to get something done, ask a busy man,” Lucas quipped in a recent email.

Lucas’s creative partner on The Light in the Piazza, composer/lyricist Adam Guettel, originated the project after reading Elizabeth Spencer’s novella of the same name.  As the grandson of one of the great 20th-century theatre composers, Richard Rodgers, and son of another, Mary Rodgers, Guettel has the art form in his blood.  His early work (most prominently Floyd Collins, about the death of a man trapped in a cave), tested the capacity of the form to engage serious subject matter set to complex music with a sharp contemporary edge.  The music in Piazza is similarly complex at times, but also shows Guettel’s ability to write a soaring melody and to capture the essence of intense emotions in pure musical form.  Piazza’s music is as rich and luminous as the Florentine light that has inspired it.

SCR’s production of The Light in the Piazza is directed by Kent Nicholson, who made his SCR debut with last season’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible.  Nicholson is currently director of musical theatre at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and has devoted much of his career to developing, directing and producing new musicals.

Nicholson has assembled a top-notch design team to create Piazza’s Florentine world, with Neil Patel (The Language Archive) for sets, Leah Piehl (The Motherf**ker with the Hat) for costumes, Lap Chi Chu (Trudy and Max in Love) for lighting and Michael K. Hooker (Becky Shaw) for sound design. The musical director is Dennis Castellano, who has served in that capacity for most of the musicals produced at SCR in the last 20 years—most recently The Fantasticks. Castellano is head of the music theatre program at UC Irvine. Rounding out the production team, Kelly Todd (Ivy + Bean) serves as choreographer.

About half the SCR cast has performed in other major productions of The Light in the Piazza. The cast includes several performers who will be familiar to SCR audiences: David Burnham (Fabrizio) was seen as Jason in Ordinary Days; Perry Ojeda (Signor Naccarelli) made his SCR debut last season as El Gallo in The Fantasticks; Martin Kildare (Roy) appeared in the 2006 production of The Real Thing; and John-David Keller (the Priest) has been a member of the SCR company since 1973, serving as both actor and director (most notably for all 34 years of A Christmas Carol). The rest of the cast comprises Patti Cohenour (Margaret), Christopher Newell (Giuseppe Naccarelli), Joseph Almohaya (ensemble), Erin Mackey (Clara), Madison Mitchell (ensemble), Julie Garnyé (ensemble), Mary Gutzi (Signora Naccarelli), Melina Kalomas (Franca Naccarelli) and Louis Pardo (ensemble). Further information on the entire cast can be found on SCR’s website.

For an informative look at the journey of The Light in the Piazza from novella to Broadway musical, follow this link to the transcript of a conversation conducted by Lincoln Center Theater with Craig Lucas, Adam Guettel and Elizabeth Spencer: http://www.lct.org/showMain.htm?id=164

Photos: Richard Doyle, Jeffrey Allan Chandler, Joan McMurtrey and Michael Canavan in Reckless; Barbara Tarbuck and Jane Galloway in Blue Window; Karen Trott, Jane Galloway and Maureen Silliman in Three Postcards; Lisa Zane, Frank Hamilton and Mark Arnott in Prelude to a Kiss.

Read more about The Light in the Piazza.

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