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LA Theater Review

The Light in the Piazza

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Composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and playwright Craig Lucas weave a pleasantly diverting and lyrical musical based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer about the visit of a mother and daughter to Italy in 1953. While the show swept the Tonys in 2005, it endures mostly as a tasty cream puff without much substance. This solid production, with a number of fine performances, only highlights the thinness of the material.

When Margaret Johnson (Mary Donnelly Haskell) from Winston-Salem, N.C., embarks on a tour of Italy with her daughter Clara (Stephanie Wall), she comes armed with guidebooks and a healthy suspicion of the natives. So when young Fabrizio Naccarelli (Blake McIver Ewing) approaches Clara and begins to flirt with her, Mrs. Johnson tries to call an abrupt halt to the courtship. But when the charms of Fabrizio's father (Jonathan Kruger) and boisterous family—including his wife (Dena Drotar), son Giuseppe (Darius Rose), and daughter-in-law Franca (Christine M. Capsuto)—are brought to bear, she wavers, seduced by the charms of the Naccarelli family and the romance of Italy.

Director William Robert Ewing has mounted an impressive production, especially for a small theater. Haskell is quietly dynamic as the mother, and Wall is charming and insouciant as the innocent Clara. Ewing is a strong and convincing Fabrizio, and Kruger is excellent as the paterfamilias. Rose, Drotar, and Capsuto have fine turns in their roles. And the five-piece orchestra, led by Michiko Hill, provides a delicate accompaniment to the voices.

The problem remains the largely undistinguished score by Guettel, which never fully engages emotional or musically with the material. The lyrics are either too obvious or too obscure, and the melodies feel remote and detached. Lucas has done a credible job adapting Spencer's small but poignant tale, but there is very little in the music that speaks to the emotional core of the story.

Presented by YMTA Productions at the El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. July 10–26. Variable schedule.
(818) 508-4200. www.elportaltheatre.com.

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