There is a certain blithe innocence in the works of Richard Rodgers (especially from his collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II) that contemporary audiences may appreciate escaping into from time to time, but that no longer captures the sardonic, gritty, podcasted world we here in the twenty-first century have come to know. It is interesting, then, that Richard Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel, with Craig Lucas (book), should choose to adapt Elizabeth Spencer’s novella (1960) into the musical The Light in the Piazza in 2005 because it has much of that same wistful charm and innocence from whence his grandfather forged a career nearly a century ago. Despite a mixed critical response in New York, The Light in the Piazza went on to win six Tony Awards (two of which went to Guettel), four Drama Desk Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards. Mitchell Marcus’ theatre company Acting Upstage is presenting the Canadian Premiere of the show at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre until February 21st, 2010.
The story centers on Clara Johnson, a twenty-six year old girl who is emotionally immature for her age, who travels to Florence in 1953 with her overprotective mother and meets and falls in love with a young Florentine named Fabrizio. Their love is mirrored magnificently in Guettel’s score; it is pure, lush, and frequently bursting with melodies of operatic proportions. The lovers’ wishes clash in the expected way, with that of their parents, and the musical follows in the footsteps of the classics of the genre as it dramatizes the couple’s journey through various obstacles in the hopes of becoming reunited. To describe it thus, it can seem trite and ordinary, but with Guettel’s gorgeous music and his charmingly spunky ingénue, Clara, the musical takes flight and catapults its post-postmodern audience into a sweet, lovely new world.
In Acting Upstage’s production, it is the performances by the leading actors that give the piece such warmth and charm. Jacquelyn French is blissful as Clara. She strikes the perfect balance between being naive and strong willed, of expressing herself as a child would, but also in seeing love through the eyes of an adult. Her beautiful soprano voice soars with richness and vitality and she captures the perfect exuberance in her relationship with Fabrizio. Patty Jamieson plays Clara’s mother, Margaret, as a woman who loves her daughter barring all obstacles, but who, nevertheless, has become weary and heavy with the pain and exhaustion of the sacrifice of motherhood. Her voice has a sharpness and directness to it which stands in lovely contrast to Clara who is so eager to soak up the world. Jeff Lillico is utter perfection as Fabrizio. Since he is a Florentine in 1953, Fabrizio speaks in a self-conscious mixture of Italian and English which Lillico executes in a winning blend of awkwardness, modesty, charm, sweetness and mischief. Lillico also has incredible chemistry with his roguish brother, Giuseppe, also overflowing with charisma by Michael Torontow. Together French’s Clara and Lillico’s Fabrizio create an incredibly endearing relationship, overflowing with the playfulness of youth and their own combined awkward charms. Juan Chioran creates Fabrizio’s father to be the opposite of his often bumbling son. Chioran is dapper and alluring as the stately figurehead whose incredible command of both the Italian and the English language has the power to buckle the knees of all those who surround him. Between Torontow, Chioran and Lillico, it is very difficult to watch this production without leaving the theatre having fallen in love with at least one of them.
It is interesting that Tracy Michailidis’ character, the sassy Franca, and her explosive relationship with her husband, Giuseppe, is pushed to the periphery of this story, when in most plays a relationship of such conflict would be considered more “interesting” than the pure, sweet romance of two immature lovers. Michailidis gives a lovely performance as Franca; fierce, wild and passionate, yet with a strong affection for Clara and a sense of fairness and decency. Guettel and Lucas’ choice to include Franca and Giuseppe, seems to suggest that the world of The Light in the Piazza is not as naive as it may first appear. Here, the writers acknowledge the harsh, difficulties of maintaining love in a world that is often not conducive to it, but they choose instead to shine the light on one example where love may triumph, and triumph under bleak circumstances and precarious odds. It is a bold choice, and one that I think, ultimately works well for Guettel and Lucas.
Acting Upstage Theatre is a small company on a tight budget and I find that their shows continually reflect the company’s investment in telling poignant, contemporary stories and having some of the best performers in the city to bring these stories to life. In The Light in the Piazza the ambiance is enlivened even more dramatically with a five piece orchestra playing Guettel’s gorgeous orchestrations including the talents of Jonathan Monro (and Lily Ling) (piano/musical director), Bryan Holt (cello), Calum McLeod (bass), Kristen Theriault (harp), and Natalie Wong (violin). Robert McQueen’s direction is clear and captures nicely the energy of its protagonists.
This musical may not appeal to everyone who sees it because it does seem to come from another time and a different consciousness, but Acting Upstage’s production proves that in thrusting aside our penchant to be sardonic, there is a lot of beauty left in the world.
The Light in the Piazza plays until February 21st, 2010 at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre (26 Berkeley Street, Toronto). For more information please visit www.lightinthepiazza.ca.