Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Now that's-a Piazza

It's hats-off to Light on the Piazza. (Photos by Mike Lovett.)

Leave it to SpeakEasy Stage to come riding to the rescue. I'd given up hope that the new theatre season would offer any sustained pleasure until the opening bars of The Light in the Piazza on Sunday - and suddenly remembered what it was like to settle in with a classy production that delivers on its promises. It's only been a year since the Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas musical blew through town like its heroine's hat, but director Scott Edmiston and his talented cast make a case for this early revival - indeed, at times their chamber staging seemed to shine a better light on Piazza than the slightly overblown New York original.

Although be warned: this is SpeakEasy Stage, and this is Scott Edmiston we're talking about, so you know the show is going to be sugar-coated. I can't think of the last raw or disturbing piece I've seen from this company (they even put a little lipstick on Fat Pig), and Mr. Edmiston in particular is a kind of theatrical Midas, although everything he touches turns to glucose before it turns to gold. Still, he spins the sticky stuff with wit and speed, and the critics (and the audiences) always gobble it up, so I can't really blame him; by now I'm willing to settle for brains rather than integrity.

And with Piazza, Edmiston's commercial instincts may be right on the money: the musical doesn't really know what to do with the moral questions it raises, anyhow. Indeed, Craig Lucas's book spends half its time setting up ethical dilemmas, and the other half backing away from them. The plot, derived from Elizabeth Spencer's novel (which became a movie with Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux) concerns a mother and daughter touring Florence who encounter - like so many American women touring Italy in the 50's! - amore, in the person of hunky Fabrizio, who falls headfirst for daughter Clara when her straw hat lands at his feet. Only it turns out Clara is a "special" child - a tragic kick from a pony left her (somehow) unable to develop emotionally beyond age 11. This, of course, is the kind of "specialness" that would generally put the kibosh on sex (at least in the theatre), that is if Clara weren't also blonde and gorgeous, and if there weren't a language gap to help disguise her impetuousness. So poor mother Meg is left in a quandary - should she reveal Clara's challenges to her suitor, who clearly has marriage on his mind?

In other words, should immaturity prevent you from having sex? You can see immediately why The Light in the Piazza is such a tasty chunk of gay catnip - thousands of show queens across the country have answered, "No, no, a thousand times no!" Sometimes I wish I could count myself among them - only to me it's rather obvious that Meg should spill the beans, and apparently Craig Lucas couldn't really think of a good reason why she shouldn't, either, so the second half of the show is a series of dodged climaxes, combined with a left turn into Meg's own romantic history: it turns out she never really loved her absent husband. What this has to do with her current moral dilemma is left unexplained, but we begin to sense we're supposed to applaud her as she decides to use her daughter as a romantic proxy. Okay, whatever. It's kind of fun to see the crafty Europeans being duped by the Americans for a change, and look at all the pretty costumes!

Or at least that seems to have been director Edmiston's approach. He seems all too aware of the contradictions in the material, because he tones down Clara's deficits (the original Clara's outbursts were a good deal more disturbing), and lightens up Meg's pain. And to push everything even closer to pure romance, he's cast a Fabrizio who sings like a dream, but whose puppyish good looks are free of any possible predatory intent - unlike the seductive hunk of the national tour. (Plus he doesn't seem too much brighter than Clara.) So when the couple finally walk down the aisle, it's hard to pretend their happily-ever-after is shadowed by any ethical quandaries or cut corners. But then the original didn't really pull off this mottled moral atmosphere either, so cue the soaring strings: The End.

And at any rate, the SpeakEasy production is a triumph of style over substance. The cast is largely new to Boston - most of our "old guard" is currently in Follies, over at the Lyric - and glitters with several potential new stars. Indeed, there's really not a weak performance to be found here. In keeping with Edmiston's direction, Amelia Broome (at left) perhaps doesn't quite limn Meg's conflicted depths as Victoria Clark famously did on Broadway - but she's a more convincing Southern belle, and once she gets on her steel-magnolia mojo, she's also a more convincing operator. Similarly, the lovely Erica Spyres stays on the lighter side of Clara's darkness, but she sings like an angel, and then unexpectedly delivers a genuinely tormented scene near the finish (where Clara struggles to explain that "there's something wrong" with her, even though she can't understand what it is). Newcomer John Bambery (below right, with Spyres) makes an appealing, if perhaps too innocent, Fabrizio (and made the most of his soaring solos), and there were also striking turns by Alison Eckert, Craig Mathers, Joel Colodner, and (especially) Carolynne Warren, who brought the house down during the all-Italian "Aiutami" - yes, much of the show is sung in Italian, with no surtitles (the admirable dialect coaching was by Christine Hamel).

Perhaps you don't need to understand the lyrics, however, because Adam Guettel's music is so ravishing - although to me it's slightly overrated. Guettel does provide a lyrical, light-yet-rich score that's slightly self-conscious in the Sondheim manner (although it doesn't, as some have claimed, much recall the work of his grandfather, Richard Rodgers). The music is studded not so much with lovely melodies as beautiful phrases linked by lotsa arpeggios, but its rapture gets a bit repetitive over the course of the evening: whatever may be happening on stage, the score sounds roughly the same. Still, it's beautifully handled by Music Director José Delgado and his six-piece band (who are partially visible behind the scenes, as that's all the rage now).

Meanwhile set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers has provided what amounts to one of Clara's sketches of Florence, rather than the fully-realized forum Michael Yeargan designed for Broadway, but it's quite evocative, and affords Edmiston several clever staging ideas (although there seems to be a little acoustic pocket over on stage right). Meanwhile the reliable Karen Perlow has provided suitably fluid, romantic lighting - and then there are the costumes. Designer Charles Schoonmaker has gone to town (and back), providing one ravishing period gown after another - sometimes it seems these ladies change between every scene, but we don't care, the results are so consistently smashing (and so perfectly tailored to the palette of the set and lighting). It's hard for me to recall a better-looking show on a Boston stage. There's deeper content to be found over at Follies, but when it comes to sheer stagecraft, nothing in town sparkles like The Light in the Piazza.

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