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THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA @ Lakeland Civic Theatre

“LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA” glows brightly at Lakeland

Roy Berko

(Cleveland Critics Circle and American Theatre Critics Association)

Adam Guettel, co-author of “THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA,” comes to writing musicals from a strong hereditary background.  His grandfather is Richard Rogers, one of the “fathers” of the modern American musical.  Yes, the co-writer of “OKLAHOMA,” “CAROUSEL,” and “THE KING AND I.”  His mother is Mary Rogers, author of “ONCE UPON A MATTRESS,” “WORKING,” “THE MAD SHOW” and “FROM A TO Z.”

A viewing of “LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA” reveals that the score has little relationship to the musical theatre tradition of Guettel’s grandfather and mother.  His are not always pretty sounds, but are more the neo-romantic classical music chords, much like opera, operetta and Steven Sondheim.  There are unexpected harmonic shifts.  The singing fits perfectly into the story, not inserted for musical effect and audience entertainment.

In contrast to many present day musicals, “PIAZZA” doesn’t have a show stopper, or exploding dance segments.  In fact, it has no dancing.  There is a chorus, but it’s a Greek chorus, rather than a chorus line.

The musical chords and melody are often counterpoint, they don’t always parallel each other.  The music being played by the orchestra, and the tones being sung aren’t the same, so the resulting sound may be perceived as discordant.  People won’t go out of the theatre humming the music or singing the songs.  There aren’t any Lerner and Loewe or Stephen Schwartz songs in this show.  It’s a different type of musical-theatre animal.

There is no complex story, no big curtain-dropping song that encourages the audience to jump to its feet in wild applause.  The ending, like most of the show, is fairly simple.  It concludes the story as it should, in a quiet thought-inducing manner.

Guettel relates that Pizza’s story is that of “a mentally challenged girl [Clara] whose mother [Margaret] takes her to Florence on a vacation and, when the daughter falls in love with a handsome young Italian [Fabrizio], decides to flout convention by letting her marry.”  He explains, “The secret of the story is the balance between the daughter’s innocent yearnings and the mother’s history of failed emotions.  If you haven’t gotten what you’ve wanted out of life and you figure your only chance of healing from that is to let your daughter have a chance, then why not let it happen.”  He also indicates, “The best part of love is that it is the opposite of innocence.”

The 2005 Broadway production ran 504 performances.  The cast included Matthew Morrison, now of television’s GLEE fame.

Interestingly, on June 15, 2006, shortly before its closing night, the show was broadcast on PBS television’s “LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER,” drawing more than two million viewers and setting in motion a national touring production.  The tour was an unusual event for a show that was not a major hit in the Big Apple.

Lakeland’s glorious production is perfectly honed by director Martin Friedman.   He lets the story unfold without any gimmicks.  No forced comedy, no attempts at bad Italian to get guffaws, no melodramatic acting.   He lets his talented cast perform as the script and score demand…in a straight-forward manner, with fine southern American, Italian, and Italian-English sounds.

Trad Burns’ artistic set, consisting of long streamers of natural colored muslin painted with ancient Italian motifs, and straight-forward lighting, enhance the simple  beauty of the show. Jordan Cooper‘s musical direction allows the vocals to overpower the orchestra sounds, thus placing the words front and center.

The score contains no songs that have become well known although “The Beauty Is,” “The Light in the Piazza,” and “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” are all beautiful.  In “Hysteria” Guettel writes a discordant tune that perfectly parallels Clara’s chaotic inner feelings and hysterical outburst as she gets physically lost and emotionally confused.

The Lakeland cast is universally superb.  Lindsey Sandham Leonard  creates in Clara a woman/child who, after being kicked by a pony at her childhood birthday party, is forever stuck in the emotional state of a preteen, yet she has matured into a physically beautiful woman.  She is completely believable when she gets disoriented, doesn’t get her way, or falls quickly in love and wants to get married without thinking of consequences.  Leonard possesses a well-trained singing voice.  Hers is one of the best recent musical performances on local stages.

Shane Patrick O’Neil creates a Fabrizio so bound up in young love, that we believe he can overlook Clara’s difficulties and take care of her, thus creating an almost fairy tale conclusion.  He has a powerful and expressive singing voice.  His Italian, as with all of the cast, is accurate and consistent.  There is a compelling emotional connection between Leonard and O’Neil.

Sandra Emerick, as the up-tight southern belle of a mother, makes us believe that she has her daughter’s best interests at heart as she fights through life with a controlling husband.

Rob Albrecht is excellent as Fabrizio’s father and Liz Huff excels as the young man’s mother.  The rest of cast is equally excellent.

Capsule judgment:  Lakeland Civic Theatre’s THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is a special night of musical theatre.  To appreciate the show, the viewer must put aside any attitude of what a musical should look and sound like and embrace this creatively “different” approach.  I, for one, loved the story, the music and the production, and would declare it a MUST SEE!

“THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA” runs through February 16, 2014.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit 440-525-7134 or