Light in the Piazza by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theater
Nobody does musical theater better than Theater LattĂ© Da. Notice I didnâ€™t qualify that with an â€śin the Twin Cities.â€ť If theater were a competition (and thank heavens that it isnâ€™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, LattĂ© Da gives us â€śThe Light in the Piazza,â€ť an exquisite musical version of an achingly romantic novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Set in Florence, Italy, in the 1950â€™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. Â Aleks Knezevich as her barely-old-enough lover, Fabrizio, is full of youthful charm, an irresistible puppyâ€”with an absolutely extraordinary voice. To quote another musical, “Holy cow!”
One might think that, as a musical, it will be the loverâ€™s tale to tell, but there is a much more interesting story locked in the heart of Claraâ€™s mother, Margaret, played so gracefully by Kathleen Humphrey. You might know this story, but I believe that Humphrey will show you something you didnâ€™t see before.
Steven Grant Douglas provides some comic relief as Fabrizioâ€™s disfavored brother. His presumed philandering makes sparks fly with his wife Franca, played by Erin Capello. Sheâ€™s a powerhouse singer and plays the role with ease. Her â€śsister-in-law song,â€ť â€śThe Joy You Feelâ€ť owned that scene.
Although Bill Scharpen as Fabrizioâ€™s father quite unnecessarily hollers his lines, he is a tidy fit for a dashing mature gentleman.
Sarah Gibson as Fabrizioâ€™s mother gets the plum moment of the play when she faces the audience and announces, â€śI donâ€™t speak English, but you need to know whatâ€™s going on here,â€ť whereupon she explains, singing in English. Having some characters step in and out of the world of the play â€” however briefly â€” 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 â€“ 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 thereâ€™s plenty of delicately choreographed movement. Yes, there is spoken dialog â€“ 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; Iâ€™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.
Thereâ€™s an inherent challenge in transferring this story to musical form: What about Clara and her limited abilities? One canâ€™t just have her singing charming little child-like tunes (and they donâ€™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 youâ€™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.
â€śLight in the Piazzaâ€ť runs through April 7 at the Ordway McKnight Theater. Highly recommended.