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The Light in the Piazza

This chamber version of the Tony Award-winning musical exposes the book's weaknesses, despite fine work by stars Hollis Resnik, Margaret Anne Florence, and Nicholas Rodriguez. logo
Hollis Resnick and Margaret Anne Florence
in The Light in the Piazza
(© Scott Suchman)
What happens when the strongest asset of the show is diluted? Such is the case with Arena Stage's scaled-back production of The Light in the Piazza, the Tony Award-winning musical about love in Italy between a female American tourist with special "challenges" and a young Italian man.

Here, the orchestrations for Adam Guettel's sumptuous score -- blending traditional musical theater styles with the refinement of light opera and more than a dash of Italian inflection and lyrics -- have been pared to a bare minimum. That choice, by director Molly Smith, exposes the uneven seams of Craig Lucas' weakly crafted story (based on Elizabeth Spencer's novella). Even Smith's usually sure hand cannot overcome the way emotional growth comes in sudden, head-spinning spurts and broad comedy clashes uneasily with overwrought sentimentality.

The story is an intriguing one. It's 1953 and southern matron Margaret Johnson (Hollis Resnik) has brought her seemingly naive daughter Clara (Margaret Anne Florence) to Florence, Italy on vacation. Margaret hopes to recapture memories of her youthful experiences there with her now emotionally distant husband while showing Clara the sights.

Clara's sights, however, get quickly fixed on local boy Fabrizio (Nicholas Rodriguez), who sweeps the seemingly naïve girl off her feet. The lovers seem destined to be together, but Margaret opposes the relationship because of what she considers a troublesome secret about Clara. As Margaret faces the risks of giving Clara the independence to find happiness, she too learns to grow and become independent.

The three stars are each more-than-capable of filling the theater company's cavernous, temporary home in Crystal City with strong, apparently classically trained voices. Indeed, it is their handling of the challenging arias and ballads which provide any emotional heat found here.

Resnik does thrilling work with her first-act solo "Dividing Day" and in her duet, "Let's Walk," in which she and Ken Krugman, as Fabrizio's worldly father, Signor Naccarelli, revel in Guettel's tricky harmonies and lyrical composition. Florence blends guilelessness with appealing determination as Clara, deftly finessing the contradiction in personality traits Lucas provides. Her clear soprano deepens in the show's later songs, and is quite divine while performing the title song, the show's loveliest ballad. Rodriguez is appropriately hunky, with a vibrant proletarian quality, and his soaring voice is stunning at times. Unfortunately, he and Florence generate little onstage chemistry.

Keyboardist Paul Sportelli directs four other musicians perched onstage above Anne Patterson's columns, colonnades, and stairs. The music sounds thin, although a harp evokes some of the sense of enchantment the production otherwise lacks. Michael Gilliam's lighting is oddly flat for a show where luminosity is a critical facet of ambiance.

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