“The Light in the Piazza” is all about passion: the thrill of finding it in first love, the willingness to fight for it in the middle stages of a conjugal coupling, the despair at feeling it’s gone forever in a long-term marriage.
The six-time Tony Award-winning 2005 musical is set in 1950s Florence (and briefly, Rome), the heartland of extreme emotion.
Anger and jealousy and disappointment are fervently expressed — in heated Italian, in broken (and fluent) English, and in song.
And yet, in the production at the new company, CCAE Theatricals, at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, the ardor feels somewhat muted, tamped down. There’s a sameness to the emotional tone.
That’s not to say that the singing isn’t superb (it is).
But the piece itself is tricky — it veers from typical musical fare into the realm of the classical and operatic. There’s a good deal of breaking of the fourth wall, to speak to and explain the action (or backstory) to the audience. In one case, the narrative comes from a woman who talks to us in English, though she can only speak Italian in the show.
Mostly, though, it’s Margaret who talks to us, giving us her conflicted feelings and her family’s background.
A North Carolinian, she came to Florence on her honeymoon, some 30 years ago, when passion was flowing.
Now she’s back, with her 26 year-old daughter, Clara — but not with her husband, who’s too busy climbing the corporate ladder in the cigarette industry.
Margaret wants Clara to see and do all the things she and Roy did before. She wants to recapture her own early rapture for the place. She read Clara the history of all the buildings and statues and paintings and ruins.
But Clara is more taken by the light… and the piazza, the main square where she meets and falls for handsome and charming young Fabrizio Naccarelli.
Margaret is enormously overprotective of Clara who, emboldened by a new and deep mutual love, is straining at the reins and ready to break away. But Margaret is wary, to say the least.
At age 12, Clara had an accident that caused her to be educationally and emotionally delayed. Her father calls her “handicapped.” Her mother reluctantly admits (and Clara overhears) that she’s “not normal.”
Clara tends to have meltdowns when she’s lost or confused (though important to the story, these are significantly underplayed in this production).
Marriage is in the offing, but Margaret is having a hard time letting go — or telling the Naccarelli family the truth. It doesn’t seem to matter.
Despite the language barrier, Fabrizio is able to communicate perfectly with Clara, and see her for who she really is. And isn’t that the real definition of love?
Nancy Snow Carr does a fine job as Margaret, and she’s in excellent voice.
As Clara, Madison Claire Parks has a delightful and delighted way about her. She also has a strong soprano voice (there’s a plethora of sopranos here).
Nigel Huckle, one of the touring Ten Tenors, is endearing as Fabrrizio, and commanding baritone John La Londe is potent as Fabrizio’s father.
The cast of 15 makes some beautiful music, as does the outstanding 15-piece orchestra, under the baton of Lisa LeMay.
The score, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, son of musical composer Mary Rodgers and grandson of the great Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame), is quite challenging, lushly orchestrated but not always melodic. The book is by Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”), relies heavily on telling when it should be showing.
When I saw the original production at Lincoln Center, I was gobsmacked, smitten with emotion. In 2008, Lamb’s Players Theatre did a lovely job with the piece.
But this time, I just wasn’t swept away. The show was very well designed and performed , but it kept me at a remove; I didn’t feel it internally like I had before.
I was certainly awed by the production values — a stunningly changing set (designed by Joe Holbrook), with its pillars and arches and giant statue of Michelangelo’s David.
The lighting (Nick Van Houten) is gorgeous. The sound (Jon Fredette) is sharp and the costumes (Janet Pitcher) are era-appropriate and varied, if not always flattering.
Overall, I could say I liked everything about this production — but I wanted to fall in love.
- “The Light in the Piazza” runs through June 25 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido
- Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($40-$100) are available at 800-988-4253 or online at artcenter.org/education/ccae-theatricals
- Running Time: 2 hrs.20 min.
- COVID Protocol: Proof of vaccination and masks are no longer required
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.