by Lynn on July 27, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Book by Craig Lucas. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer. Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel. Directed by Jay Turvey. Musical direction by Paul Sportelli. Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco. Lighting by Andrew Smith. Choreography by Linda Garneau. Starring: Juan Chioran, Kaylee Harwood, Jeff Irving, Patty Jamieson, Julain Molnar, Jacqueline Thair, Kelly Wong.

Continues at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. until Oct. 13.

Florence, a city where the sun always seems to be shining. Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara have come to Florence on a grand vacation. Margaret and her husband Roy spent their honeymoon there. Margaret has fond memories of the place. This is the first time she has returned. On this occasion Roy has stayed home because his business required it. Clara, sweet, innocent, wide-eyed, is charmed by the city and all its art. The sight of naked statues gets her squealing.

Clara is also charmed by Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Florentine whom she meets by accident when her hat blows away and he catches it. Fabrizio is just as smitten by Clara. He tries to engage both mother and daughter to come for a coffee, or lunch, to meet his family. He seems to always be where they are. Clara is very agreeable to meet Fabrizio and his family.  Margaret is not and it’s not just being careful of charming strangers in foreign places. It’s protection of Clara who we learn is mentally fragile and ‘not what she seems.’ Margaret has spent Clara’s life protecting her from such discovery. What she can’t stop is that Clara and Fabrizio truly fall in love. Added to this is having to deal with Roy who also is a protective father, but we learn is a distant, cold husband.

The Light in the Piazza is a delicate story of sudden, innocent love, with overtones of secrecy and deception. It’s also about a mother’s fierce love for her fragile-minded daughter, in which the mother has to make a hard decision to let her daughter go.

Author Craig Lucas is no stranger to exploring the deep ache in the heart because he has written about it so well in such plays as Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless etc. In The Light in the Piazza it is the sensitivity and delicacy with which he reveals Clara and Margaret’s story, the budding love of Clara and Fabrizio, the sad marriage of Margaret and Roy, that is so affecting. The audience is engaged too in the decision making. What is the right decision? What would we do in that situation?

Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics are equally as effective in delving into the human heart, the nature of love, marriage and relationships. The music is complex, layered and so appropriate to the situation. Again, Guettel is no stranger to exploring challenging situations as he did with Floyd Collins.

Director Jay Turvey showed a strong, clear director’s hand last year when he directed Trouble in Tahiti, his first effort as a director. And he shows the same confidence this year with The Light in the Piazza. There is an elegance and detail in his direction. Something as simple as Clara’s hat blowing off her head so that Fabrizio can catch it is delicate and artfully suggested. You can almost feel the breeze on your cheek. Turvey also realizes the subtleties of looks from character to character as a glace from husband to wife reveals so much. When Fabrizio’s parents meet Clara and Margaret, there is a shorthand between husband and wife—they are as concerned about this relationship as Margaret, but for other reasons.

Turvey stages his characters with efficiency suggesting the slow ‘hustle’ and bustle of Florence. And while Michael Gianfrancesco’s set of three large moveable archways and a raised platform in the centre of the stage, simply suggests the architecture of Florence and the movement from scene to scene, I think the result is too cluttered at times. The Court House stage is small. Those archways overpowered it.

The cast of actors who can sing beautifully, is exemplary. As Margaret, Patty Jamieson is gracious when dealing with the ‘world’ of Fabrizio and his family, and gently commanding with Clara. She has a look of smiling concern. She is watchful and careful not to give too much away. And her singing of “Dividing Day” my favourite song in the show, is so moving. Margaret sings about her marriage and how it seems to have changed and she is still trying to figure it out when and why. And with each revelation you suck air in compassion as we realize what happened. Beautifully done.

As Clara, Jacqueline Thair beautifully suggests her sweet innocence. And for all of Clara’s supposed ‘immaturity’ here is a Clara who is gracious, complex, openhearted and fierce when it’s needed. Thair sings in a clear soprano voice and captures all the light and warmth in the music. Her singing of “The Light in the Piazza” is a case in point.

As Fabrizio, Jeff Irving’s smile says everything. Youthful, innocent, intense in his feelings, courtly and hugely emotional when he thinks he is losing Clara. His gut-wrenching singing of “Aiutami” is a man in torment. His Fabrizio is both a loose-limbed young man barely out of his teens, but also a mature young man who knows instinctively how to calm Clara when she is agitated.

Paul Sportelli conducts the band of five with sensitivity and assurance. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that a) the band is not microphone and b) neither is any actor-singer. Sportelli modulates and balances the band’s sound with that of the unamplified singing. How novel—to actually hear the natural sound of musicians along with a cast of accomplished actors who can sing beautifully. Hallelujah.

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