I saw The Light in the Piazza for the first (and only) time when I was probably fifteen or sixteen at the Ahmanson in downtown LA, where a friend of my mother’s had season tickets.
The musical follows a mother and her childlike adult daughter as they tour Italy in the 1950s. During their travels, the daughter meets an Italian boy named Fabrizio and they fall in love (of course), as the tightly wound mother fights to ensure the safety and happiness of her daughter. Cultural clashing ensues. It was the professional touring cast, I think, and it was all very pretty. The singers were pretty and the set was pretty and the dresses were pretty and as I watched it that evening in 2005-maybe-2006 I hated it. I hated the music. I hated the story. And mostly, I hated the fact that the whole show hung on this American mother character I couldn’t even pretend to understand.
What can I say? I was fifteen. Sometimes, fifteen year olds are stupid. At least, sometimes, as a fifteen year old, I was stupid.
Seven years later (bear with me here; there’s a review coming, I promise), I flew away to Spain to teach English for a year, and as I stood in the airport with my own mother, she made me promise I wouldn’t fall in love. Which, of course, is exactly what I did. I went to Europe and fell very much in love. With a culture, with a language, and most of all, with a boy. It all happened very fast. Two months into my stay in Spain, when I Skyped with my mother and told her I’d fallen for a Spaniard, she put her hand over her heart, and stayed very quiet, and shook her head.
Don’t worry, she loves him now.
Anyway. This boy accompanied me to The Ziegfeld Theatre on Saturday night as I tiptoed back into the world of The Light in the Piazza. And this time, folks, it was different. This time, I got it.
Of course, part of the reason that I got it was because I finally wasn’t fifteen anymore. And part of the reason I got it was because the whole bilingual romance thing strikes much closer to home than it used to. But honestly, most of the reason that I got it was because of the masterful work by the cast and crew in bringing the complexities and realities of the show to life. Director Megan Perry assembled an extremely talented group of people to execute her vision — both onstage and off. Everything was a complementary part of a coherent whole, from the spot-on costume design (a round of snaps for designer and actress Alina Gatrell) to the dancing columns designed by music director/set designer/marketing manager/artistic director Rick Rea. Although Piazza’s musical style still isn’t quite my cup of tea, it was very well executed by the live band led by Rea, and by the vocally solid cast.
Innocent lovers Clara (Lindsea Garside) and Fabrizio (Scott Stuart) make an awkwardly adorable bilingual pair. They are both armed with knock-out voices and great chemistry, able to carry their songs both together and alone. From the moment of their meet-cute when Fabrizio catches Clara’s runaway hat, you’re rooting for them.
Fabrizio’s Italian family — Guiseppe (David Knowles), la signora (Alian Gatrell), and il signor (Caleb Parry) — is boisterous and playful and steeped in tradition. Their ensemble moments are some of the funniest and most charged of the show. Heidi Hunt’s portrayal of Fabrizio’s sister-in-law, Franca, was especially strong. Her passion was as convincing as her fluid Italian, and she effortlessly owned the stage. She was, at once, the coolest girl in high school and a mad, tragic bundle of nerves. When, in a delicate moment, she threw herself at an unsuspecting Fabrizio (which, of course, incited some rightful wrath from Clara), I didn’t know whether I wanted to slap her or hug her or tell her I loved her dress.
After all, however, the poignancy of the show comes down to Clara’s mother. The mother, who, nine years ago, I couldn’t understand for the life of me. Rachel Shull’s performance as Margaret, the American mother, was not only a masterful showcase of vocal talent, but also a nuanced and wise portrayal of a very complicated woman. She played Margaret with stunning honesty. The character is equal parts sarcastic and sincere, a kind woman burdened by secrets and age and love. As her daughter drifts away from her and her marriage to Roy Johnson (played by Troy Hone) falls apart at her feet, Margaret must sift through the pieces of the life she spent decades in building, to discover who she is now that it’s gone. Despite Shull’s youth, I believed every moment. Without melodrama or showiness, Shull guided the audience through Margaret’s process of saying yes and letting go, and I finally, finally got it. At moments, I saw in her my own mother, as she watched me helplessly on a computer screen as I told her that I was in love with a world that was not my own.
Of course, like every show, the Zig’s Piazza had its flaws. Some of the “Italian-speaking” characters stumbled over their words, and some of the set pieces were clumsy, but nothing took away from the show’s wholeness. I can’t wait to see what will come next from this fairly new theater company and its incredible potential. Catch The Light before it’s gone.
The Light in the Piazza is playing at the Ziegfeld Theater, 3934 S Washington Blvd., Ogden. Shows are Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at 7:30 from now until February 15. Tickets at $15 for adults, and $12 for students, seniors, and children.