From left to right: Jessica Fredrickson (Clara Johnson), Kathleen Humphrey (Margaret Johnson), Helen Hassinger (Nun) in The Light in the Piazza.
Photo by Michal Daniel
As the lights went down after intermission Saturday evening at The Light in the Piazza, I looked over and saw that the only person left in my row was a lone gent in the middle. The groups to either side seemed to have abandoned the show midway.
I could see where they were coming from. Not that Theatre Latte Da's production wasn't tightly produced or gloriously sung. Instead, the musical from Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel (based on Elizabeth Spencer's novella) can be a difficult ride. If you come in looking for a light, romantic evening about love blossoming in Italy, you're likely to be disappointed. If you meet Piazza on its own terms, you won't be disappointed.
Even before you get to the story -- which has its own difficulties and an unexpected trap door -- there is Guettel's score. Closer to modern opera or art songs than the pop-influenced sounds that emanate from most modern Broadway shows, the music offers subtle rewards that force the audience to work. Open ears, however, lead to plenty of pleasures as the musical deepens. The different elements piece together into a simply glorious final 20 minutes.
Now to the story. Young love blossoms in Florence in the 1950s between Fabrizio, a local, and tourist Clara, who has traveled to Italy with her mother, Margaret, from North Carolina. Fabrizio doesn't speak much English, while there is something... off about Clara.
The secret haunts Margaret, and carries the heart of the story. This is really her story -- about realizing where her life is at that moment and about letting go of her daughter. Into that role steps Kathleen Humphries, who gives a magnificent performance, bringing out the growing confusion, heartbreak, and, finally, determination of the character.
Aleks Knezevich and Jessica Fredrickson work well together as Fabrizio and Clara. They should have chemistry, as the two are a real-life couple with plans to get married following the close of the production.
Fredrickson carries off the innocence and confusion of her character very well, playing emotions on the surface without it becoming cloying (or telegraphing the story's surprises). Knezevich plays his character with great warmth, projecting a protective aura around Clara that lets us know that their relationship is going to be okay.
Director Peter Rothstein employs a small cast, focusing the attention on the core characters. It does make Italy seem a bit lonely, but the set pieces -- stylized flats of buildings and great works of art -- and the lighting effectively bring the spirit of the country to life.
IF YOU GO
The Light in the Piazza
Through April 7
Ordway McKnight Theatre
345 Washington St., St. Paul
For tickets and more information, call 651.224.4222 or visit online.