Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Light is a Delight

‘Light in the Piazza’ is a musical that is fraught with peril. First, it is set in the 50’s – an era that can easily be non-descript and bland. Next, a good chunk of the dialogue is in Italian – with no translation. Finally, the vocal demands on the performers are formidable, to say the least. If any of these elements fail, the whole effort will topple like a broken three-legged stool.

Fortunately, Riverwalk Theatre has Jane Falion at the helm of this production. With her usual verve, finesse, and attention to detail, virtually every aspect of ‘Light in the Piazza’ is flawless.

The burden of ‘Light in the Piazza’ falls squarely on the shoulders of the two young lovers, Fabrizzio (the Italian boy) and Clara (the emotionally-challenged American girl). If they are not convincing, this show will be tedious to endure. Not so with Falion’s ‘Light.’ Chad DeKatch as Fabrizzio is superb. His Italian is flawless and his honesty, vulnerability, and exuberance made the audience believe he was the earnest, eager young lover from the outset. The audience always ‘understood’ him – even when he spoke only in Italian. His exceptional acting was only outdone by his beautifully expressive and powerfully evocative singing. His expression, range, control, and interpretation were captivating and – in a word – thrilling.

But the delight didn’t stop there. As his paramour and the object of his ardor, Paige Lucas is every bit DeKatch’s equal. She brings charm and innocence to a role that could easily become saccharine and shallow; but her sense of genuine childlike wonder was balanced by the growing and palpable conflict between her passion for her newly found lover and her sense of duty and devotion to her mother. Her lyric soprano voice soared with a strong, clear tonality that became deeper and richer as the performance went on, growing to a climactic and dramatic number in the second act.

Together, DeKatch and Lucas create a pair of lovers that evoke the ardor and energy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or Maria and Tony in West Side Story, or Bud and Deanie in Splendor in the Grass.

The supporting roles were equally impressive. First among them is Emily English Clark. A veteran of Lansing musical theatre, no one takes the stage with more grace, aplomb, and talent. As Clara’s mother, Margaret Johnson, Ms. English-Clark perfectly evinces the conflict of a woman torn between wanting Clara to experience all the joy and passion that has long been absent from her own marriage, yet afraid to let her daughter go into the arms of the man who holds that very promise. Ms. English-Clark creates a complex character of levels and nuance; her lovely voice has tremendous range and spans the gamut from comical to soulful to heart wrenching.

The counterpoint to Margaret Johnson is Fabrizzio’s father, Signor Naccarelli, played to subtle perfection by Doak Bloss. Perhaps no other actor working on Lansing area stages brings the kind of artistic maturity and honesty to his roles as does Mr. Bloss. Always eschewing artifice and obvious choices – a real pitfall when playing philandering character like Signor Naccarelli – Bloss manages to portray a layered and sympathetic man: a loving father, a successful haberdasher, a Lothario - yet a man who struggles with his own imperfections. Bloss and English-Clark compliment each other terrifically. The utter trust they share allows them to play off each other like pros, generously giving and taking from moment to moment.

Other supporting cast members create memorable characters that bring incredible richness to the production. Laura Davis Stebbins as the slighted Mrs. Naccarelli is particularly elegant and poignant with a truly lovely soprano voice; Dale Powell expands his growing repertoire of characters as Giuseppe Naccarelli, the ‘like-philandering father-like-son’ older brother, who is both arrogant and loveable. One character we could gladly have heard more from vocally belongs to Betsy Bledsoe, playing Giuseppe’s slighted wife, Franca. Ms. Bledsoe’s voice is a rich, powerful mezzo-soprano that soars to the theatre rafters, in stark contrast to the fragile, edgy character she portrayed, oozing pain at her husband’s infidelity.

Even the supernumeraries were artfully understated. From by passers, to nuns, to tourists, they accented the production beautifully. When the entire cast sings together, the beauty and power of these voices is breathtaking.

The audience got a real ‘taste’ of Italy from the stylized and evocative set of Tim Fox and Larry Savoie. Beautiful tiled flooring, high curving arches, Roman ruins, and marble statues all delighted the eye and created the illusion of Florence on the Riverwalk stage. Set changes were handled skillfully and were often woven into the background as scenes progressed, allowing the action to move at an impressive pace.

Equally evocative were the costumes of Tomi Simmons. They were spot-on for the period, perfectly executed, and beautiful to behold – especially the women’s dresses. The music, directed by James Geer was rich and full. If there was anything to fault, perhaps the orchestra was a little too full a couple of times for some of the voices – but this was a minor issue in an otherwise enchanting and powerful production.

If you can’t afford to go to Italy this year, you can still experience its beauty and charm, with all the wonder of newfound love and rich, evocative characters in Riverwalk Theatre’s ‘Light in the Piazza.’ Bravissimo!

Eric Dawe

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