Light in the Piazza by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theater

March 18, 2013
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Light2Nobody does musical theater better than Theater LattĂ© Da. Notice I didn’t qualify that with an “in the Twin Cities.” If theater were a competition (and thank heavens that it isn’t) this company could offer courses in how to do it right. I don’t gush often, but I’m gushing now.

First lesson: How to pick shows.

In the midst of a tidal wave of shows with decidedly adult language and content, Latté Da gives us “The Light in the Piazza,” an exquisite musical version of an achingly romantic novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Set in Florence, Italy, in the 1950’s, it may be impossible to find a more appealing locale. Furthermore, its lovers are genuinely sweet and innocent, and its protagonist struggles with honest motives to do the right thing.

Second lesson: Casting for success.

Jessica Fredrickson with her sparkling voice was exactly right for the innocent Clara. Silvery notes just seem to fall out of her effortlessly.  Aleks Knezevich as her barely-old-enough lover, Fabrizio, is full of youthful charm, an irresistible puppy—with an absolutely extraordinary voice. To quote another musical, “Holy cow!”

One might think that, as a musical, it will be the lover’s tale to tell, but there is a much more interesting story locked in the heart of Clara’s mother, Margaret, played so gracefully by Kathleen Humphrey. You might know this story, but I believe that Humphrey will show you something you didn’t see before.

Steven Grant Douglas provides some comic relief as Fabrizio’s disfavored brother. His presumed philandering makes sparks fly with his wife Franca, played by Erin Capello. She’s a powerhouse singer and plays the role with ease. Her “sister-in-law song,” “The Joy You Feel” owned that scene.

Although Bill Scharpen as Fabrizio’s father quite unnecessarily hollers his lines, he is a tidy fit for a dashing mature gentleman.

Sarah Gibson as Fabrizio’s mother gets the plum moment of the play when she faces the audience and announces, “I don’t speak English, but you need to know what’s going on here,” whereupon she explains, singing in English. Having some characters step in and out of the world of the play — however briefly — helped to keep a picturesque and tortuously romantic story from feeling too sentimental or dated.

A small ensemble of top-notch singers rounds out the cast for a glorious choral blend. Note to writers: More, please!

Third lesson: Let the story breathe and the music speak.

This is complex, musically – a soundscape of mid-century popular-standards-become-contemporary-art-songs: sophisticated and smart but not intellectualized in the least. Good, high-class theater writing by Adam Guettel (the grandson of Richard Rodgers) on music and lyrics, with a book by Craig Lucas.

In many respects this is more of an opera, stylistically, than a traditional Broadway musical. No dancing, for one, although there’s plenty of delicately choreographed movement. Yes, there is spoken dialog – some of it in Italian, but quite understandable, nonetheless, in a delightful bilingual tangle.

Artistic Director Peter Rothstein may have a tendency to over-perfect; I’m admitting my preference for a little danger on that stage. But it seems petty to complain about near perfection. Denise Prosek is simply top-of-the-line for musical direction, also at the piano anchoring a lovely, live string ensemble.

There’s an inherent challenge in transferring this story to musical form: What about Clara and her limited abilities? One can’t just have her singing charming little child-like tunes (and they don’t), but how, then, can her limitations be portrayed? The musical contains it in a handful of innocent remarks that come off a little ditzy, but nothing more. If you’re willing to buy into the penchant, at the time, to keep illnesses and imperfections hidden, I doubt that this will bother.

I would like to see them back off on the amplification of the accompaniment. Not needed. And then they can lighten up on the singers mics, too. Also good.

“Light in the Piazza” runs through April 7 at the Ordway McKnight Theater. Highly recommended.

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