By Judith Cookis Rubens
Things aren’t exactly as they seem in Farmers Alley Theatre’s latest, the complex, romantic musical, “The Light in the Piazza.”
Our young heroine, Clara, isn’t exactly the simple, pure beauty she first appears. And, while you’re seated in an intimate Kalamazoo theater, a few clever video and lighting tricks transport you to the Tuscan countryside, viewing Florence’s art and architectural treasures.
By far, the biggest revelation is that this is no throwback ’50s musical about young love denied by family influences. It’s a decidedly more modern rumination on the pitfalls of marriage, the giddiness of first love, and the myriad complexities of parenthood. And audiences are all the better for these discoveries.
Farmers Alley has a stellar track record for musicals, but it may have topped itself this time. “Light in the Piazza” is an intelligent, haunting production that features Broadway-worthy lead performers and excellent musical direction.
The year is 1953 and protective American mother Margaret Johnson (Broadway veteran Teri Bibb) is touring Florence, Italy, with her daughter, Clara (Darcy Link). She’s returning to the place she honeymooned with her husband, but, these days, he’s a distant workaholic and their marriage is tense, strained. Bright-eyed Clara, 26, has a youthful, carefree spirit and a young woman’s beauty, but, we slowly learn, a childhood head injury has left her mentally stunted.
Things get complicated when young Italian suitor Fabrizio (Bobby Conte Thornton) falls hard for Clara. He’s smitten by her free spirit, yet unaware of her condition. Try as she might, mom cannot discourage the attraction, and, soon, she’s meeting Fabrizio’s family and there’s talk of a wedding. Should she yank her daughter home, protecting her and the family from what might be a disaster, or should she overrule her own cynicism and trust love to help heal her daughter?
Such questions are deftly posed in this sweeping musical score by composer/lyricist Adam Guettel (grandson of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Richard Rodgers). A live orchestra, including a harpist, performs it beautifully here. The Sondheim-influenced songs are densely rich, with lyrics that expose the characters’ internal thoughts.
“Light in the Piazza,” a multiple Tony Award winner in 2005 on Broadway, is not a breeze for performers – a good portion of the songs are in Italian – but these players are certainly up for the challenge.
Bibb, from the ’80s Broadway run and first tour of “Phantom,” expectedly anchors this production with a nuanced turn as the fearful mother who still remembers the promise of first love. She’s magnificent in “Dividing Day,” ruminating on the ways her marriage has cracked, and she’s able to show off her true vocal range in the finale, “Fable.” Bibb finds just enough vulnerability and hope to make the mother a sympathetic figure.
It’s hard to imagine this production making such an impact, however, without the impressive talents of newcomers Link and Thornton playing the young lovers.
Link, a University of Michigan musical theater junior, stuns audiences with a gorgeous voice and an amazing ability to blend Clara’s childlike wonder and growing sensuality, while hinting at her character’s disability. Thornton, another U of M theater student, is well-cast as Clara’s Italian suitor, Fabrizio. He oozes boyish charm and delivers show-stopping numbers, some in operatic Italian. Their voice blend exquisitely together in the Act One closer, “Say It Somehow.”
Megan Jacobson also shines as Fabrizio’s feisty sister-in-law, Franca, while Scott Crownover, as the Italian father, lightens the mood with teasing humor.
The show’s few puzzling disconnections come mainly during sudden shifts from character-defining solos to the broadly drawn humor of Fabrizio Naccarelli’s family, a loud, emotional bunch who love – and hurt – in big ways. The second act “Aiutami” family number is entertaining, but seems puzzlingly out of place for this musical, as do the occasional character asides to the audience. In one, Fabrizio’s mother (Gina Maria Chimner), stops to explain the Italian dialogue, which feels mostly unnecessary.
Director Kathy Mulay’s production overcomes these few glitches with the material, most notably, by cleverly projecting images of Florence against a simple Tuscan-hued set, which helps advance the plot. This is aided, of course, by Lanford J. Potts’ beautiful lighting and Robert Jordan’s period-perfect costumes. Les Batts’ sound design also gets a nod for filling the intimate space perfectly.
Italy’s splendor and promise, of course, is an extra player here, and this rich production does it justice.
‘The Light in the Piazza’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Thursday-Sunday through July 1. $25-29. 150 minutes. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com