Saturday, October 5, 2019

review - THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA - ASU Music Theatre and Opera

Kathlynn Rodin and Mary Ott
photo by Tim Trumble
by Carolyn Thomas

ASU's The Light in the Piazza does something many of the best musicals do in a way all its own: it provides the audience with a hard question, but leaves it up to us to decide the answer, if there truly is one. Also, Phoenix? Can we talk a minute about how spoiled we are with such great young talent in the Valley? ASU is only one example, as The Light in the Piazza shows off many great actors with incredible voices and heartfelt performances, a true testament to the level of skill many have come to expect from the School of Music Theatre and Opera. Rarely do you find a show with such genuine heart and talent; The Light in the Piazza at ASU is not to be missed.

Originally a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, The Light in the Piazza was adapted into a musical in the early 2000s by Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (music & lyrics). The story follows Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara on vacation in Italy. A chance encounter brings Clara face-to-face with Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Florentine whose lovestruck refrains put Romeo to shame.Clara, however, isn't quite what she appears, and her mother struggles to toe the line between protecting her daughter and holding her back.

The music evokes classical musical theatre and opera, with several songs completely in Italian. All through the musical, many different characters continue to project their understanding of what love is on Clara and Fabrizio, and the audience has every opportunity to make up their mind on which definition of love is the one they believe, but no one is swayed away from their own understanding. They don't need to be. Each of their own truths hold firm, but the one thing they all have in common is the fond remembrance of when they first fell in love.

Mary Ott as Margaret Johnson is a delight to watch. Margaret is by far the true heart of the show, and Ott plays her with conviction and maturity well beyond her years. She shines the brightest in Margaret's moments of vulnerability, in her indecision, her conflicting desires for caution and hope. In the role of her daughter, Clara, Kathlynn Rodin is positively charming and sunny at first blush and brings a raw innocence to Clara that truly draws everyone in to her. Her range of emotion is wide and stretches to every extreme within moments, and Rodin embraces every second.

Jacob Herrera (center) and Cade Trotter
photo by Tim Trumble
Jacob Herrera as the doe-eyed Fabrizio Naccarelli brings a delightful charm to the show, lighting the stage with his youthful exuberance that matches Rodin's Clara. Together, they cast a spell on the audience that would make even the most jaded member want to believe in love again, if only for Clara and Fabrizio's sake.

Cade Trotter is suave and sure as Fabrizio's brother Giuseppe. He plays a convincing brother, just likable enough for the audience to care about, and just slick enough to arouse suspicion that validates his wife's accusations of cheating. Vaibu Mohan's Franca is intriguing from the moment she steps onstage, even as ensemble. Mohan's forceful presence demands attention in the best way, and it's difficult to take your eyes off her. She's fiery and fiesty as a primo Italiano stereotype, but it's a rare instance where it just works. Kade Bailey represents another side of the Italian stereotype in Signor Naccarelli (as does Giuseppe, for that matter), but Signor Naccrelli reads realistic and very believable with his stoic machismo thanks to Bailey. Molly Cox's Singora Naccarelli surprises and delights in act two, when she really gets the chance to have fun with the role. Cox provides some comedic relief in the drama, which is much needed. Teddy Ladley, who has only a few brief scenes, paints a very clear picture of Roy Johnson with the little time he has. It takes only a few lines for the audience to know exactly what kind of man Roy is.

Robert Kolby Harper's direction balances simplicity and detail, giving us just enough sense of time and place to know precisely where the characters are without muddying the modest stage with anything unnecessary. His staging makes clever use of the versatile set pieces and takes us on a true journey with the characters themselves. Harper's choreography accents the musical with a little Fred Astaire flair, humorous and full of heart.

Mary Ott
photo by Tim Trumble
The scenic design by Alfredo Escarcega features multifaceted moveable pieces that quickly settles the audience into each scene, though certain neglected details broke the illusion at inopportune moments (namely, Rome). All in all, however, the scenic design was well-suited to the production and the many moving pieces came together to elevate the production as a whole. Jacqueline Benard's costumes cleverly evoked the true heart of each character in every way, from color to tailoring or lack thereof. Benard's work gives the audience an immediate understanding of the personalities of most every character before they've even spoken, and her work expertly conveys the characters' journeys through small details as the show goes on.

Kristen Peterson's lighting design is largely successful, utilizing bold colors that are vivid and evocative, but sometimes distract from the action onstage. Connor Adams' sound design is simple and effective, though perhaps there were more opportunities for sound to elevate the production that were not taken. Music Director Greg Paladino balances the line between musical theatre and opera beautifully, bringing out the best in Guettel's arrangements.

The Light in the Piazza is sadly not performed as often as it ought to be, but ASU School of Music Theatre and Opera's production makes up for the lack of quantity with quality. It's thought-provoking, heartfelt, and truly earnest in every way.

CLICK HERE for more information on this production, which runs through October 6

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