Plano — Elizabeth Spencer wrote The Light in the Piazza in just one month during the five-year period when she lived in Italy. It originally appeared in The New Yorker, but she began to envision it as a longer piece and after some rework, it was published as a novella in 1960. That novella was nominated for The National Book Award in 1961, competing against To Kill a Mockingbird, among others. The following year the novella was made into a movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux. Forty plus years later, the musical adaptation with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel opened on Broadway, ultimately winning six 2005 Tony Awards.
Brick Road Theatre’s production of The Light in the Piazza, now onstage at The Courtyard Theatre in Plano, is only the second time this show has been mounted in Dallas. The first was by Theatre Three in 2009 with the current production’s director Wendy Welch in a lead role now played by Brick Road’s Artistic Director Noelle Chesney.
Welch, musical director Pam Holcomb-McLain and conductor Chris Widomski have beautifully guarded the integrity of this work in accordance with standards expected by the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization. Composer Guettel is actually the grandson of Richard Rodgers, son of his daughter, Mary Rodgers. This is a lush and difficult score to sing. Welch and Holcomb-McLain have assembled principles with solid technique and understanding of the style. The 15-piece orchestra, performing live, is located in a different space. Welch announced this in advance to the audience, lest anyone assume the performers were singing to a recording.
The story is set in 1953 in Florence and Rome. Margaret Johnson (Noelle Chesney) and her daughter Clara (Janelle Lutz) are on vacation in Italy. Roy Johnson (Lon Barrera) did not accompany them on this trip. Clara meets Fabrizio Naccarelli (Seth Womack) in a plaza, and they are each immediately smitten. Under normal circumstances, this would be exciting but Clara is a little different and out of protectiveness, her parents have kept that difference a secret. Margaret tries to discourage any further contact between them, but Fabrizio is persistent and manages to arrange a meeting with Margaret and Clara and his family. Margaret finds herself in the seemingly impossible position of either keeping the family secret from the Naccarellis, or agreeing to the marriage of her daughter.
The Naccarellis are a good, successful family. Fabrizio’s father, Signor Jacarei (Dan Servetnick) owns a clothing store and is assisted in that business by his other son, Giuseppe Naccarelli (Billy Betsill). Giuseppe is married to Franca (Laura Lites). Signora Naccarelli (Sarah Comley Caldwell) is Fabrizio and Giuseppe’s mother. They are supported by Phil Alford as the local priest, Rebecca Bias as the tour guide, and an ensemble with Mindy Bell, Elizabeth Drake, Jonathan Hardin, Chris Edwards, Rebecca Miller, and Mary Ann Morrow.
Welch and Holcomb-McLain can stand tall and proud on this production. It is impressive. A highlight is Lites’ performance of with “The Joy You Feel”—a textbook reaffirmation that a song in musical theater cannot simply be pretty, it must also be well-acted.
The Light in the Piazza is loaded with the symbolism of light, and most of that responsibility falls to Clara’s character. Lutz fulfills that and more. The name “Clara” means “light” and Lutz embodies this as she also becomes the path to enlightenment for those around her. Lutz has a powerful voice but she also exhibits a lightness of being, which her character needs.
As a song, “Dividing Day” is gorgeous and heartrending, and Chesney is captivating during that number. Her most powerful acting moment is the scene following “The Light in the Piazza.” This is a story about the blossoming of Clara, but it is actually a story about the emergence of Margaret as a complete being not dependent upon her husband nor bound as a caretaker to her daughter.
Fabrizio is adorable in Womack’s hands. He nails every song, which is really saying something because he has to sing in Italian, getting the diction correct, and also communicating in a way that a non-Italian speaking audience can figure out the gist of the song (Italian coaching by Cheryl Parrish). With each song it becomes clearer why Margaret finds it so difficult to try to break Fabrizio and Clara apart. Several of the songs in the musical are in Italian, as the creators did not want translations provided to the audience because they wanted us to have the same feelings the Johnsons had in that moment. The scenes with the family pop with confidence, humor and layers.
Ryan Schaap’s costumes and Logan Broker’s wigs are quite good. Steven Anchutz’ set is appropriately minimal, leaving sufficient space for the public outside scenes which have a lot of transitions.
This Brick Road Theatre production is another example that confirms that audiences do not have to travel to central Dallas to see quality productions.