Musical theater is surprisingly unforgiving. Audiences are far more likely to recognize a squeaking sour note than they are the barking clamor of a bad actor in Shakespeare. So it is to this cast's credit that under the excellent musical direction of Jordan Cooper and the sensitive and intelligent leadership of Martin Friedman, the notes and most key moments of The Light in the Piazza at Lakeland Civic Theatre weave together like silver strings in a fairy's pavilion.
Lights flare up on a cleverly rendered background of sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, lit with Trad A. Burns' lovely cool evenings, gleaming sunsets and warm summer afternoons.
Sketch artists dressed in the creamy, sandy colors of a fresh rain are scattered about. The locale has the feel of an elegant cotton and lace table setting on a dusty Italian afternoon. Credit costume designer Stephanie Fisher and Burns for their dynamic artistic collaboration. This evocative setting prepares us for the delicate heartbreak and yearning of the next two hours.
Into this ancient Italian plaza, a mother, Margaret, and daughter, Clara, arrive: two Americans, here to see the statues and revel in the stories of old Florence. They sing, immersed in the unique harmonies of Adam Guettel's music. Played by Sandra Emerick and Lindsey Sandham Leonard, their voices soar in wonder at the crumbling beauty of the old city.
A breeze blows by, catching Clara's hat, which lands in the hands of Fabrizio Naccarelli, played with finesse by actor/tenor Shane Patrick O'Neill. As she retrieves her hat from his hand, Fabrizio and Clara are felled; he by her innocent beauty, she by his aching soul.
When Margaret whisks Clara away, Fabrizio cries out in song, in his native Italian, of the impossibility of their sudden passion. His cry is magnificent—an onrush of anguish and melody and bell-ringing clarity. The sound of the human voice, perfectly placed, is distinctive. To reach that level of expertise is in itself an artistic accomplishment. But to reach that mastery and then let go of it - so that the heart's emotional storm can be given free voice - turns a good sound into a soul-stirring whisper that reaches through the music to touch our dreams.
Shane Patrick O'Neil plays Fabrizio with simplicity and vulnerability. His passion and superb technique are thrilling.
As Clara, Leonard matches O'Neill note for note. Her bright eyes reach out into the world with a passion to embrace it all. She is a study in innocence, curiosity and beauty. She possesses the singer's knowing that allows her most private feelings free access to the world. Her voice is starlight: powerful enough to move a train off its tracks, yet subtle enough that at times I couldn't tell if I was hearing her or thinking her, the sound was so pure and filled with quiet longing.
As if two weren't enough, Emerick, as Clara's mother, is also gifted with a powerful voice that soars through the theater as she battles her uncaring husband, the frightened father of the groom and her deep and abiding love for her daughter.
Rob Albrecht, who plays Signor Naccarelli, Fabrizio's father, maintains a quiet dignity and confidence of his wisdom. His voice is deep and full and commands the stage whenever he appears. His daughter-in-law, Franca, played by Neely Gavaart is excellently played with man hating, world-weary despair; Gavaart is a fine singer in her own right.
The most fully written character in the play is Johnson, Clara's mother. Her marital regrets, her motherly love and loss, her heartbreaking struggle to let go of her daughter resonate through the play.
So it is with some puzzlement that in this production in spite of the masterful singing, design and staging, I was left interested, but not necessarily moved by her struggle. I suspect much of this has to do with the play itself, which utilizes an old cliché of bumbling Americans abroad, love-at-first-sight melodrama and occasional lines that sound like a Van Johnson B movie. At one point in the beginning of the second act, the play turns into a scene reminiscent of a South Park parody, loud Italians screaming at each other incomprehensibly. All of this tends to interfere with the potential emotional impact of the play.
That being said, there are many beautifully realized moments, from Margaret, Clara and most particularly when Fabrizio comforts Clara just before the wedding in a quiet, intimate embrace.