Sunday, August 29, 2010

"The Light in the Pizza": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

You can't hum a note of it, you can't remember a word of any song they sang and the story is as old as the Tuscan foothills: woman and daughter go to Italy -- Florence, in this case -- daughter falls in love with Italian boy, mother rues her own faded romance, boy and girl get together. Finito.

And yet -- every minute of "Light in the Piazza" is captivating. Composer and lyricist Adam Guettel (yes, he is the grandson of Richard Rodgers) and librettist Craig Lucas, along with brilliant scenic design by J. B. Wilson, costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and lights by Pamila Z. Gray, have created a precious Florentine world for us to inhabit. We have somehow become the doting parents of gorgeous-but-flawed Clara (Whitney Bashor), helpless before the onslaught of young love, in the person of handsome Fabrizio (Constantine Germanacos).

The play belongs not to the young lovers but to Margaret Johnson, Clara's mom. Margaret (Rebecca Eichenberger) and her seldom-seen husband in America (Richard Frederick) came to Florence when they were first married. She remembers the glory of the city, but that flush of romance has passed her by. Her telephone conversations with her husband are strained at best. She wishes more for her daughter, who has a mysterious affliction (which for some reason is never apparent to the audience. All we see is a headstrong, amazingly beautiful young woman who just happens to have an operatic voice that can shake the Uffizi).

If you don't fall in love with this woman you don't deserve to be Italian.

Margaret must shepherd the romance along, while looking out for her own attraction to Fabrizio's father (Martin Vidnovic). As she says as Act Two is proceding: "Don't ever take a dream to Italy."

Adam Guettel, of course, is in a bind. Anything he does that sounds like his grandfather would be pilloried by the legion of Richard Rodgers lovers across the land. So he writes tunes, but they are to modernistic melodies. You don't get "If I Loved You" or "Oklahoma!" Instead, you get a modernistic "Light in the Piazza," which is lovely as it is being sung by Clara but could never be repeated by you or anyone else. You don't hum back Adam Guettel any more than you do Igor Stravinsky or most Stephen Sondheim.

But that's the deal. These songs work beautifully within the context of the story. The story does not exist simply to showcase the songs. It doesn't hurt that the characters are all equipped with operatic voices. You feel their angst as well as their happiness, even if, later on, you can't remember exactly what they sang.

(Where do these beautiful people with huge voices come from anyway? Is there a planet where they clone people who look and sound like Whitney Bashor and Constantine Germanacos? Is it in New Jersey?)

We must also give very special thanks to the chamber quintet that plays the music, especially written for fewer pieces to suit regional theater. This is a difficult score to play in sync with actors. If they had done what most theaters do these days, i.e. replace the violinist, cellist, bassist and harpist with one synthesizer player, the music would have none of the sweetness and texture that is crucial to the score.

But that's the musician talking. The theater critic was totally captivated by "Light in the Piazza" and hopes you will be too.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Light in the Piazza" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. No show since Peter Pan (in May) has earned this high a rating, and give the crinkly curmudgeon who grimaces as he hands out these stars just one or two songs to hum back and the rating would have been higher. The cast is fabulous. While the trio of Eichenberger, Bashor and Germanacos control our emotions, the supporting cast shines as well, moving across a stage as easily as our hearts sail through this tale of young love.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for director Robert Kelley. Nothing stands out and everything stands out. This means Robert Kelley has directed with that perfectly invisible hand.

And it's not Shakespeare. Nobody dies. Hurray!

"The Light in the Piazza"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Sep. 19

1 comment:

jj-aka-pp said...

I often hum Sondheim!
I have never hummed Guettel..."Floyd Collins" is also good, but HARD to hum!