It's 1953 and Margaret has come to Florence from North Carolina with her mentally challenged adult daughter Clara (Jennifer Blood) for a vacation. Their seemingly simple pleasure trip gets quickly complicated once Clara falls instantly in love with local boy Fabrizio (Ben Jacoby), and his family embraces the situation while Margaret struggles to tell them the truth about Clara's condition and decide what's right for her daughter.
The staging by artistic director Charles Abbott hews closely to Bartlett Sher's Broadway production -- thanks in part to Dennis Hassan's effective set design -- but Abbott has encouraged some unneccessary broadness of gesturing by the cast. The reduced orchestration for eight musicians doesn't do full justice to the lushness of Guettel's score, but it does the job well enough -- although conductor Edward Reichert seems to have quickened many of the tempi.
Beyond the pleasures of the score, Piazza's strength lies in its characterizations. (The plot, sadly, doesn't always withstand scrutiny.) Wintersteller's Margaret starts off on an almost overly comic note, but her portrayal of a woman eventually forced to declare her independence from a physically and emotionally distant husband (John Charles-Kelly) deepens with every scene. A superb singer, Winstersteller effortlessly nails the drama of her three big solos: "Dividing Day," "The Beauty Is (Reprise)" and "Fable." She also exhibits strong chemistry with Fabrizio's father, played beautifully by Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby (Ben Jacoby's father), which turns out to be a key relationship.
As the young lovers, Blood and Ben Jacoby are each an ideal combination of innocence and immaturity -- so much so that one devoutly wishes their voices (especially Blood's) were better suited to the score's challenging demands. The supporting cast is basically fine -- most notably Betsy DiLellio as the fiery Franca and Debra Cardona as Signora Naccarelli -- and the ensemble is quite good, as well.
Ultimately, though, even in a less-than-perfect production, The Light in the Piazza can only leave the most stone-hearted patron without a tear in the eye and a tug at the heart.
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