The second show in Raleigh Little Theatre’s current production of the Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas musical, The Light in the Piazza, had a capacity crowd on hand and received a near-flawless performance. In an area where amateur productions must battle for patrons with professional theater and oftentimes must match that level of performance, Raleigh Little Theatre (RLT) has managed to pull off yet another major coup as regards musical theater.
The Light in the Piazza has a central cast of eight, a supporting cast of ten, eighteen major scene changes and some of the most difficult music to be encountered in what is meant to be a romantic comedy. The operatic scope of the music, indeed the inclusion of two songs sung in Italian, makes this a most difficult production; nevertheless, director Haskell Fitz-Simons and musical director Julie A. Florin rise to the challenge. Using a set self-described by Fitz-Simons as “massive,” and amateur voices that are nonetheless stellar, RLT produces a delicate air of mid-twentieth-century Florence, Italy. In a whirlwind fourteen days, a young woman coddled by her parents suddenly grows up, and soars from her sheltered nest.
The young woman, Clara Johnson (Katie Hennenlotter), and her mother, Margaret (Megan Crosson) are on holiday in Italy, Margaret taking her daughter to see all the places that she and her husband, Roy (Jeff Cheek), traveled to early on in their relationship. But while in Florence, Clara’s simple beauty smites the heart of a young Florentine, Fabrizio Naccarelli (Brenton Blakesley), and suddenly the family’s tragic history stands in the way of true love.
The cast is completed by the Nacarelli family: Papa (Mark Ridenhour), Mama (Tricia Strong), Fabrizio’s older brother, Guiseppe (Edward Cooke), and his wife, Franca (Katherine Anderson). The show also requires the presence of ten actor/techs, who not only add the flavor and spice of the streets of Florence but also perform the dual functions of chorus and major set changers. These ten stalwarts are John Adams, Amanda Blair Callaghan, Rita Goss Coby, Amanda Kessel Dearinger, Antonio Delgadillo, Jay Dolan, Tyler Betts Rollins, Alana Sealy, Jean Marie Whaley, and Nicholas White.
The rolling set pieces, indeed massive, were designed by Rick Young; the true-to-period costumes were designed by Vicki Olsen. Adding to the rich display of mid-century Florence is the interesting choreography and blocking Fitz-Simons includes, at one point having a distraught Clara running down the huge colonnade as it moves from one locale to another. This split-second timing and slow, majestic changing of sets, as the action takes place, speeds the production time and adds to the dynamic structure of this work.
But the true center of this play is the music, and it is played and sung with near-professional skill by this cast. Indeed, the amount of musical knowledge within this cast is itself massive, with several of the cast performing in professional roles prior to this production.
Highlights of Act 1 include the trio of songs sung in Italian, within the walls of the shop belonging to the Naccarellis. While this trio is sung in a foreign language, there is little doubt that Papa and Guiseppe scoff at young Fabrizio’s sudden ardor, while the youth sings the praises of his love and his passion for her youthful elegance and charm. Clara sings of the beauty of traveling in a foreign place in “The Beauty Is,” and Margaret comes to realize, sadly, that her own marriage is in trouble in “Dividing Day.” Clara and Fabrizio close out Act 1 with a Romeo and Juliet type scene, “Say It Somehow.”
Act 2 highlights the operatic aspects of this work with a major comic scene, as all the members of the Naccarelli family stress over Fabrizio’s pain of lost love in “Aiutami.” Once the wedding bells are set to ring, the rehearsal is set down in a major company scene referred to simply as “Octet.” It is a major highlight of the show. Once the rocky road has been successfully traveled and the wedding takes place, Margaret concludes with show with a major operatic aria, “Fable,” where her own operatic talents come to the fore.
This is a bear of a show and to pull it off at all takes massive effort on the part of all concerned. That it is done well is a tribute to what must have been many, many hours of work by a talented cast, crew, and orchestra. Hennenlotter and Crosson ardently portray characters it took Yvette Mimeux and Olivia de Haviland to pull off in film. And Brenton Blakesley as Fabrizio is the picture of youthful first love. He plays the smitten with understanding and aplomb.
Kudos to RLT and to director Haskell Fitz-Simons for yet another coup when it comes to mastering a monster of a production. It adds itself to a long line of musicals superbly staged by RLT in what will soon be its 75 years of theatrical production.
This production runs through June 27. For details, see our calendar.