Two patrons were walking down the sidewalk Saturday after attending the opening of “The Light in the Piazza” at the Ordway’s McKnight Theatre.
The first asked, “Did you love it?” and his friend replied, “I thought it was great.”
Likely, the second man intended this as affirmation. For me, however, the exchange expressed what I was feeling about Theater Latté Da’s production. It is, indeed, great. But I cannot say I loved it.
“The Light in the Piazza” is a nostalgic paean to the golden age, and Peter Rothstein’s production keenly gets that aesthetic with a production that is perfumed like a “Playhouse 90” musical. Rothstein sets his orchestra visibly at the rear of the stage; Paul Whitaker’s lights fill in warm tones and Rick Polonek has designed a faux proscenium with portable facades of Florentine architecture wheeled about by actors. Rich Hamson’s costumes shine with continental elegance.
This show’s star always has been composer Adam Guettel, who won 2005 Tonys for his original score and orchestrations. Guettel exercises his operatic ambitions, and music director Denise Prosek draws out the lyrical heart of this score — particularly in the harp of Andrea Stern.
Margaret Johnson (Kathleen Humphrey) has traveled to Florence with her daughter, Clara (Jessica Fredrickson). Margaret had honeymooned here and, emblematic of how well that marriage has weathered, hubby stayed home. Clara catches the eye of Fabrizio Naccarelli (Aleks Knezevich), and we more or less know where we are headed — this being a happy fairy tale.
There is, however, a dark side in this story, originally a novel and then a 1962 film. Clara has a disability as the result of a childhood accident, and Margaret fears for her future as a married woman.
Teasing this story forth in Craig Lucas’ script becomes a tedious affair. Clara is written with frustrating inconsistency. She’s sharp and insightful, with a growing grasp of Italian one minute; rash and temperamental as a petulant child the next. Fredrickson labors to navigate this mine field, and the result is a stagy character who never leaves us convinced that something real is at stake. Knezevich’s Fabrizio is a young innocent, purposely bland.
Humphrey’s Margaret might have had a case to make for the middle-aged woman tired of stirring her wedding embers. This, though, is introspective, and Rothstein’s production aims at Clara and Fabrizio.
The one character with some vinegar is Fabrizio’s sister-in-law Franca, played and sung robustly by Erin Capello.
So yes, there is beauty. And art, elegance, perfectly calibrated timing, lovely stage pictures and music. There is even the slightest twinge in our hearts at the conclusion. But all this ambition does not demand ardor. It does not make us want to love this great piece of work.