Review | Powered by Song and Romantic Tangles, ‘The Light in the Piazza’ Delights
Opera Santa Barbara and Its Chrisman Studio Artists Program Staged an Impressive 'Light in the Piazza'
To reduce The Light in the Piazza to a thumbnail synopsis, one could say it concerns a young and lovely tourist traveling from middle America to Florence, escorted by her hovering mother and entertaining the overtures of a handsome young Italian man. A marriage looms, the parents in question alternately fret and rejoice. Alas, the seemingly simple plot thickens and back stories grow murky and revealing. The couple’s and parents’ relationships? It’s complicated.
Aside from the narrative tapestry, all along the way through the two-act musical, impressively staged by Opera Santa Barbara at Center Stage Theater last week, our protagonists burst into memorable song. They are intelligently wrought songs, in a loosely Stephen Sondheim–ish manner, by composer-lyricist Adam Guettel. Did we mention that he is Richard Rodgers’s grandson?
The piece has a multi-stage history, based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, from which an Olivia de Havilland–starring film came in 1963. The Guettel adaptation, with book by Craig Lucas, premiered in Seattle in 2003 and landed at NYC’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2005. To the too-slender resume of productions, Santa Barbara’s Center Stage can now be added.
The Light in the Piazza comes to us as part of Opera Santa Barbara’s (OSB) Chrisman Studio Artists alliance, bringing musical theater and light opera to the smaller space of Center Stage and offering choice opportunities for young and developing singers and artists. With its air of sophistication just left of conventional Broadway-defined musical theater language, Piazza proved a perfect vehicle for the strong OSB season. Kudos go to stage director Layna Chianakas and music director/pianist Timothy Accurso — leading a flexible chamber quintet through the score — for engagingly bringing the musical to life here.
In this lean but resourceful staging, we’re pulled into the world of the piece from the lyrical opening scene in the piazza, with mother and daughter Margaret and Clara Johnson (wonderfully played/sung by Christina Pezzarossi and Brooklyn Snow, respectively) admiring the scenery. Clara, in particular, admires the admiration of local Fabrizio (Matthew Greenblatt, in fine form), who woos her in spite of her mother’s disapproval and early hints of a central flaw in her daughter’s character.
The peaceable beauty and deep history of Florence provides a handy context for the fledgling and then flourishing romance, as well as a way into the life of the Italian family nest — sometimes, a hornet’s nest — of the Naccarelli family (the father was played with slick charm by Matthew Peterson and the mother given dramatic heft by Georgia Jacobson). Ending act one in a passionate frenzy, a sequence moves from the dissonance-flecked musical soup as the vulnerable Clara slips into a state of confusion, calmed by Fabrizio in “Say It Somehow.” By the finale, both mother and daughter have navigated their way into self-liberating paths in life and love, as Margaret carves out her new midlife mission statement in “Fable.”
And despite its insights into real world/real family verities, The Light in the Piazza is a fable, as most musicals are, in the final, song-studded rub, OSB did the fable justice.