By Sue Merrell
If you’re looking for a real get away this summer, consider “The Light in the Piazza,” the final show to open in the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre season.
The stonework stage floor and fountain, as well as the 1953 white-glove fashions with windblown straw hat, quickly bring to mind old romantic movies such as “Roman Holiday” and “Three Coins in the Fountain.” But this show not only whisks you away from Michigan, it also gets away from the catchy pop sound of most Broadway musicals. Adam Guettel’s lush score is more like opera, with half of the lyrics in Italian.
The music is truly extraordinary, and Hope’s cast delivers impressive vocal performances. The piano of music director Stephen Schermitzle peeks into a corner of the stage while the remaining chamber orchestra members – bass, cello,violin – are heard but not seen.
Based on the wonderful novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the musical explores love from many different perspectives, offering more depth than most romantic comedies. Margaret, a middle-aged woman from North Carolina, is spending the summer in Italy with her daughter, Clara. The mother hints to the audience several times that Clara is “special,” but the exact cause and degree of the daughter’s affliction isn’t revealed until halfway through the first act.
Certainly as portrayed by Katie Drinkard, Clara doesn’t appear handicapped. Her beauty and beguiling innocence soon attracts the attention of Fabrizio Naccarelli (Michael Hanna), a young Italian shopkeeper. Although he speaks practically no English, and Clara speaks no Italian, the two are instantly in love.
Although Margaret (Susan Ericksen) tries to keep Clara away from Fabrizio, the pair keep connecting. Soon the relationship includes Fabrizio’s parents, brother and brother’s wife. Margaret is wooed into this loving, though tempestuous, family.
One of the important factors of the story is Clara’s openness. She knows she is different, but in this new culture her isolation is masked by the language barrier, so she is actually freed to communicate on a more basic human level. She muses over the statues in a museum, singing that Italy is “the land of naked marble boys” while her home in Winston-Salem is “the land of corduroys.”
As Fabrizio, Hanna’s passionate singing voice is simply mesmerizing. The enthusiasm he puts into his character makes him seem so Italian, and on some level every bit as vulnerable as Clara. Drinkard has an equally strong voice, and when the two combine in the Act I finale, “Say it Somehow,” the blend is fabulous.
But this is also Margaret’s story, as she comes to terms with the shortcomings of her own marriage, and the inherent risks of love. Erickson fulfills the responsibility well, including doing an excellent job with the broad range required for this music.
The Naccarelli family adds a great dimension to the story, singing and speaking mostly in Italian. Hope artistic director David Colacci portrays the sardonic patriarch, who speaks English and weaves an understanding relationship with Margaret. Joe Bigelow is great fun as Fabrizio’s smooth dancing brother. He’s evidently been unfaithful to his wife Franca (Alyssa Magarian), who bonds with Clara and warns her to beware. In one humorous scene, the cosmopolitan mother of the clan (Anita Jo Lenhart) steps out of a family fracas in Italian to explain in English what’s going on.
Director Daina Robbins keeps a brisk pace with ensemble members transforming a fountain to a bench or a pew, moving window walls and setting up table and chairs with barely a break in the conversation.
At the risk of sounding uncultured, I actually prefer the catchy pop tunes of garden variety Broadway. But once in a while it’s fun to get away to the romantic fantasy land of “naked marble boys.”
‘The Light in the Piazza’
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre at Dewitt Theatre, 141 East 12th Street, Holland. Plays in repertory through Aug. 9. $12-28. 616-395-7890. http://www.hope.edu/hsrt