Theater: Meeting the challenge

Spreckels’ ‘The Light in the Piazza’ artistic and impressive

by David Templeton

When 2005’s The Light in the Piazza first materialized on Broadway, there was much talk that the show—a musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel—marked a return to the gorgeous scores and lyrical drama of the golden age of Broadway. Ignoring decades of rock and pop influences on Broadway, composer Adam Guettel created a score that was lush, orchestral, complex, operatic and deeply, brazenly romantic.

In a remarkably strong new production at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, director Gene Abravaya—taking a real risk on something this difficult—has more than met the challenge, assembling some first-rate singers and a stellar chamber orchestra for what is quite possibly the most beautiful, satisfying, musically competent and artistically successful show the company has ever staged.

And that some of the cast sings and speaks (convincingly) in Italian, only adds to the impressiveness of the enterprise.

Whether all of this is enough to draw an audience remains to be seen, though positive word-of-mouth will certainly help. But for audiences clamoring to see something beyond the same old overdone standards, here is your chance to prove it, and to bring a party of friends along for the ride.

Set in Italy in the 1950s, the story follows two visiting Americans, the wealthy Southerner Margaret (brilliantly played by Eileen Morris) and her wide-eyed daughter Clara (Jennifer Mitchell, whose pure singing voice and expressive face make every emotion clear as a bell). When Clara falls in love, at first sight, with the youthful and exuberant Fabrizio (Jacob Bronson, as emotionally alive and effective as Mitchell), the stage is a set for a series of clashes between Margaret and Fabrizio, between Margaret and Clara, and between Margaret’s desire to protect her daughter, and to also allow her the love she never fully allowed for herself.

The clever, entertaining book by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss; Amélie: The Musical) does include scenes spoken in Italian, giving a sense of the lost-in-translation confusion that impedes Clara and Fabrizio at every turn.

In one delightful turn in the second act, Fabrizio’s mother (Barbara McFadden, wonderful) drops the Italian to explain in English what her husband (an excellent Steven Kent Barker) has been saying to their other son (Tariq Malik) and his wife (Amy Marie Webber).

With fine design and technical support, Spreckels’ Light in the Piazza is an impressive achievement, dripping with the dangers and allure of love—and that’s worth experiencing in any language.

NOW PLAYING: The Light in the Piazza runs Friday–Sunday through Oct. 25 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park; Fri.-Sat. at 8pm; 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday; $16-$26; 707/588-3400.

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