THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA by ANTHONY CHASE

Debbie Pappas Sham

Next year, Second Generation Theatre will set up shop at Shea’s Seneca Theatre in South Buffalo. For the final show of their nomadic existence, the company is at Lancaster Opera House, where they have taken on the lushly romantic and musically challenging Adam Guettel / Craig Lucas musical, The Light in the Piazza. Directed by Loraine O’Donnell, with musical direction by Allan Paglia, the production transforms the traditional proscenium space into a three-quarter round thrust stage with a set designed by Paul Bostaph.

This reconfiguration is characteristic of Second Generation and the unflinching care the group takes to give each production something special. Bostaph has provided an elegant tabula rasa on which to tell a tale about events that happened in a specific place. Such ambitious gestures are characteristic of this young company, which first entered the scene with an impressive production of the James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods, four years ago. I dubbed that inaugural moment an “auspicious first outing” and stated that its imperfect beauty filled me with hope for more quality work to come, not just from Second Generation, but from an entire new wave of young talent.

As the older generation of local theaters teeters toward the retirements of their founders, without a succession plan in sight, this hope remains potent. Indeed, it is telling that this landmark musical is enjoying its first local production fully 12 years after the original Lincoln Center Theater production.

The Light in the Piazza also follows the stories of two generations. The plot chronicles the 1953 journey to Florence, Italy of Margaret and Clara Johnson, a mother and daughter from North Carolina. Mother had made the same journey years ago, as a honeymoon trip. At this point in her marriage, however, the honeymoon is clearly over, and hubby remains at home in Winston-Salem, with only distracted and disinterested phone calls connecting him to his wife. Margaret is left to retrace the footsteps of young love, alone.

The plot hinges on the fact that daughter Clara is a grown woman and uncommonly beautiful, but a childhood brain injury has left her with the emotional maturity of a 12 year old. This becomes an issue when Fabrizio, an amiable young Italian, develops a passionate infatuation for her. Margaret, who typically defers to her husband on important decisions, must navigate this apparent crisis on her own.

“Mother, what happened here?” asks Clara, in the play’s opening line.

Margaret’s response, directed to the audience, establishes the entire play as a flashback.

“What did happen here? I played a tricky game in a foreign country . . . What did I do?”

 

This Light in the Piazza is anchored by a stellar and affecting performance by Debbie Pappas Sham as Margaret, the mother. She sings the soaring score and acts the complex role divinely, communicating this woman’s inner conflicts about her daughter, about her husband, and about herself.

The performances of Kelly Copps and Anthony Lazzaro as the innamorati, Clara and Fabrizio are also marvelously captivating. Copps successfully suggests a naïf who may just have been underestimated by everyone. Lazzaro is perfection as the dewey-eyed young man in love. When they harmonize, the effect is thrilling.

Among the secondary roles, Matt Witten and Steve Jakiel excel as contrasting fathers, Signor Naccarelli and Mr. Johnson. Witten, the Italian romantic, both protective and encouraging toward his son and family; Jakiel as the ambitious American whose family was merely an ornament and accessory, necessary to a post-war corporate career.

It is in these key roles that O’Donnell’s bold directorial vision is best realized. Characters further down the chain of the plot dissipate into the fog in the piazza.

The contentious relationship between Franca and Giuseppe Naccarelli, played by Rebecca Runge and Marc Sacco never really comes into focus. The pair sing the roles admirably, but the nature of the friction between them never gains more than the substance of cliché.

And yet, how exquisitely, deliciously wonderful to see this divine musical rendered with such ambitious love and artistic bravado. We easily forgive any frustrating imperfections. The production is a theatrical gift, proffered in a provisional home with fragmented rehearsal times, and limited access to the space itself, much less to the set.

Once Second Generation arrives at the Seneca, the ante is upped once again with the promise of stability, and the sustained rehearsal times and careful allocation of resources that steadiness can afford. The advances made by this no longer fledgling company in a short stretch of time have already been decisive and notable. Indeed, while the company has announced that they will open with another brash and ambitious musical, Big Fish, part of me wishes that they might open their new and permanent home with a slightly tighter but equally lush rendering of The Light in the Piazza. At its best, the production is gorgeous, a true musical theater gift.