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‘Light’ shines in Downtown Dexter

By | 2018-01-16T04:53:57-05:00 September 15th, 2011|Entertainment|

If there’s one phrase friends would never use to describe me, it’s this: a romantic. I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment – especially when it pertains to my choice in theatrical entertainment. As such, a “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” musical would normally not rank very high on my personal list of “must-see” productions. After all, it’s a well-worn, time-honored theme that generally results in the expected happy ending – which for me, leaves the audience with only one question as the curtain first rises: We know how it will end, but how will it get there? So to be completely honest, the 2005 Tony Award-winning musical “The Light in the Piazza” didn’t seem like the type of show that would hold my attention or tickle my fancy.
On the other hand, I also know a finely tuned production when I see one, and that certainly described the opening night performance of “Piazza” at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter.
The theater, nestled in a quaint downtown just west of Ann Arbor, offers a season of musicals utilizing a mix of Broadway talent, local professionals and other area talent. As do all young companies, The Encore has worked hard to carve a niche for itself in the marketplace, and each new production reveals lessons learned from the previous: Technical aspects improve with every show, and the glaring differences in the skills of the performers are mostly gone.
Which brings us to what is likely the slickest production yet on The Encore stage, “The Light in the Piazza.”
From the moment the audience walks into the theater, “Piazza” screams “quality.” Toni Auletti’s 10-panel background immediately sets the play in Italy. Each panel depicts a famous work of art or piece of architecture, and the quality of her work is so exceptional that my guest at the show, an art collector, would love to add a few panels to his private collection. And Matt Tomich’s lighting design enhances not only the panels, but the storytelling as well.
But the secret of the show’s success are the wise choices director Steve DeBruyne made as he cast this little gem – particularly the singers. Because without a doubt, “Piazza” has the strongest cast I’ve seen yet in my three years sitting in The Encore’s audience.
Based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the book by Craig Lewis adds a few interesting twists to an age-old plot. American Margaret Johnson (Barbara Scanlon) and her 26-year-old daughter, Clara (Stephanie Souza), travel to Florence, Italy in the summer of 1953. While walking through the city square, a breeze lifts Clara’s hat high into the air – and into the hands of Fabrizio Naccarelli (Brian L. Giebler), a young and handsome Florentine. It’s love at first sight, of course, but there’s a problem: Clara, according to her mother, is “a special child” – and she tries hard to prevent the romance from blossoming.
But remember: This is a romantic musical, so the question isn’t so much “WILL they get together” but HOW. And along the way playwright Lewis tosses a few minor subplots and family members into the mix to keep the audience guessing.
And did I mention some of the dialogue and lyrics are delivered in Italian?
Surprisingly, that’s part of the show’s charm – it helps the story unfold from the perspective of the American tourists – and to the cast’s credit, the Italian sounds authentic. (Take it from two Italians sitting in the audience: me and my guest.)
But it’s the fabulous singers who truly sell the show. To highlight any one song does a disservice to all the others, so I won’t; all are delivered with the same passion and gusto.
Scanlon carries Margaret as the matriarch and protector of the Johnson family, and her facial expressions are priceless. (Her reaction to close the first act is priceless.)
Souza, whose recent performance as Marian in “The Music Man” was a bit inconsistent, shines here as Clara. The young woman is having the adventure of a lifetime, and Souza’s enthusiastic and wide-eyed portrayal perfectly captures her full range of emotions.
Giebler comes to The Encore with a pedigree a mile long, and it shows from the moment he steps on stage. Currently a second year master’s degree candidate in vocal performance at the University of Michigan, Giebler’s love-sick Fabrizio will remind even the most jaded of us what young love can do to a normally sane young man. And his vocal skills are impressive indeed.
Fine support is provided by Scott Crownover, who – as Fabrizio’s father – knows how to deliver even the shortest line to get the biggest laugh. (He hasn’t been called “Mr. Musical Theatre” for nothing, you know!) And the always-enjoyable Sebastian Gerstner adds comedy relief as Fabrizio’s older brother, Guiseppe. (He makes singing and dancing look so damn easy! And fun!)
The other supporting and backgrounds characters add the necessary color to make this a standout show. Only Gil Bazil in the small role of Roy Johnson, Clara’s father, looked extremely uncomfortable and bobbled his few lines.
Musical direction by Brian E. Buckner couldn’t be better.
Also impressive are the set changes. Minimalist set pieces come in and out throughout the show, perfectly framing each scene, and they do so quietly, quickly and efficiently.
So while the script didn’t tug at my heartstrings as it apparently did with much of the audience on opening night, my socks WERE knocked off by the interpretation presented by director DeBruyne and his talented team. Anyone looking for a fine night out might want to consider dinner and a musical in downtown Dexter.

‘The Light in the Piazza’
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 2. $28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org

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