Humanity lights up `The Piazza'

"The Light in the Piazza," which began in Seattle and went on to multiple Tonys on Broadway and then a national tour, has always had gorgeous, complex melodies and an almost operatic intensity. What it hasn't had, at least for me, is a story or characters that make sense.

Amazingly, however, Scott Edmiston's production for the SpeakEasy Stage Company finds a subtlety and humanity in Craig Lucas's book that I simply did not see before. And by rounding the characters into actual human beings, Edmiston's direction gives Adam Guettel's music and lyrics the setting they need to affect us as they should. This "Light" is not just lovely to listen to and to look at; it's brimming with passion, forgiveness, and love.

What makes the difference? For one thing, Edmiston has downplayed the more caricatured aspects of Lucas's story, an adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's novella about a Southern woman and her oddly childlike daughter on vacation in 1950s Italy. The mother, Margaret Johnson, can seem like a stereotypical American tourist in the early scenes; she can also feel shrill, manipulative, and heartlessly controlling. But in Amelia Broome's performance here, from the outset, she is less of a drawling cartoon and more of a person. She is a mother, however misguided, who loves her daughter and dreams of seeing her live a normal life despite heavy odds. She gains our sympathy early, and that's crucial.

Also crucial is the shift in the portrayal of her daughter, Clara. Without giving any key plot points away, let's just say that Clara, now 26, lacks the emotional and intellectual maturity you'd expect in someone her age. On Broadway and on tour, her childlike quality would come and go without warning, partly because she was played by drop-dead-beautiful young women. This physical perfection, combined with an odd but intermittent blankness, made us think "Barbie," not "wounded child."

At SpeakEasy, though, Erica Spyres's Clara has an inwardness and an almost awkward quietude that makes us grasp, even before we learn the particulars, that something is wrong. She's still lovely, but not in the same model-perfect way - and the slightly "off" quality of her looks and gestures deepens our understanding both of Clara and of her mother's fierce desire to protect her from harm.

And then there's Fabrizio, the young Italian who meets Clara and falls instantly in love. Instead of a matinee idol, John Bambery plays him as touchingly young, innocent, and a little lost. Now his adoration of Clara, and his inability to see anything wrong with her, makes sense: In a way he's as childlike as she is, and it's their almost disabling purity that draws them together. The language barrier, even as it creates a distance, also pushes them into connecting on a nonverbal level - and that just happens to be where they both function best.

SpeakEasy's production also returns "Light" to its roots, as a smaller chamber piece than the big Broadway musical it became to fill up a larger stage. This scale feels right: It doesn't push the play and its themes into trying and failing to be universal, but lets us experience one particular story about a few particular, and particularly flawed, human beings.

Jose Delgado conducts the small orchestra with finesse and taste; it's just a pity that the two young lovers are so heavily miked. Did they really need such amplification to keep from being drowned out by the instruments? The artificiality of the sound is especially jarring in scenes where the loud young voices clash with the natural-sounding ones of the older singers, particularly the skillful, rich-timbred Broome.

That's about the only cavil, though, in a show that also features fine supporting performances - especially from Joel Colodner, as Fabrizio's father, and from Carolynne Warren and Alison Eckert as the women in his family whose Italian fire contrasts nicely with Margaret's American ice. This "Piazza" looks stunning, too, with Karen Perlow's sun-warmed lighting saturating the Tuscan hues of Susan Zeeman Rogers's elegant, versatile set and Charles Schoonmaker contributing some of the most flattering costumes in recent memory.

But "The Light in the Piazza" has always been a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. What's new at SpeakEasy - and it makes all the difference - is that now it touches the heart.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

www.bostontheatrescene.com

"The Light in the Piazza," which began in Seattle and went on to multiple Tonys on Broadway and then a national tour, has always had gorgeous, complex melodies and an almost operatic intensity.


Boston Globe
By: Kennedy, Louise

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA

Presented by:
SpeakEasy Stage Company

Boston Center for the Arts Roberts Studio Theatre, through Oct. 18, 2008 www.bostontheatrescene.com

Musical with book by: Craig Lucas. Music and lyrics by: Adam Guettel Directed by: Scott Edmiston. Music director and conductor: Jose Delgado. Choreography:
David Connolly. Set:
Susan Zeeman Rogers. Costumes: Charles Schoonmaker. Lights: Karen Perlow.

 Erica Spyres (left) and Amelia Broome play an American mother and daughter touring Italy. (Mike Lovett)

Erica Spyres (left) and Amelia Broome play an American mother and daughter touring Italy. (Mike Lovett)

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