Dark secrets

Hidden by The Light in the Piazza
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  June 17, 2009

light main
MYTH, DREAM, OR REALITY? Maine State Music Theatre's lovely Light.

Even the quotidian is lyrical here among Roman columns, lush sunsets, and the bare contours of ancient heroes. In this Florence of 1953, daily life is filled with flowers, fedoras, and waiters transporting girls on beautiful bicycles. Here is a city of romance, a natural setting for myth and fable in the multiple award-winning Broadway musical The Light in the Piazza, the sumptuously produced season opener of the Maine State Music Theatre, which runs through June 20 in Brunswick.

We gaze upon this archetypal Italy through the eyes of the vacationing Margaret Johnson (Lynne Wintersteller), wife of a Winston-Salem businessman, and their lovely, strikingly innocent daughter Clara (Jennifer Blood). When Clara's wind-borne hat acquaints her with the sweet young Fabrizio (Ben Jacoby), who returns it to her, both fall hard and irrevocably. Though Margaret is intensely protective of her daughter, soon enough she and Clara are getting cozy with his whole beautifully dressed family, including his philandering brother Giuseppe (Jared Zirilli, entertainingly louche), haughty sister-in-law Franca (the excellent Betsy DiLellio, whose dresses I covet), mother (Debra Cardona), and wry, patrician father Signor Naccarelli (a wise and subtle Mark Jacoby, who is Ben's real-life dad). However, unbeknownst to the Naccarellis, Clara is not exactly what she seems. As Margaret agonizes over how much to tell them, her daughter's storybook romance transforms her mom's beliefs about the risks and redemption of love.

It's easy to imagine Margaret and Clara so transported by these cityscapes, because MSMT's production team has rendered them utterly gorgeous. Dennis Hassan's modular white arches and columns convey vastness, myth, and age, and the Naccarellis' impeccable parlor (a tall drape of white chiffon and French windows) is all Old World opulence. A lively ensemble assembles and reassembles these moveable settings, often under a deep blue gel, and goes on to inhabit them as waiters, old women, whores, and nuns, who themselves add rich color and character. As for Jeffrey S. Koger's lighting, it is veritably the title character of this play: From luminous sunsets and twilights to eerie Expressionist shadowplay in the red light district, Koger's design fills every setting with sensuous significance.

Swooning through the light, the passionate young couple is charmingly love-swept in the hands of Ben Jacoby, whose hair one wants to tousle, and Blood, who does a fine job negotiating the limitations and the joys conferred by Clara's secret. Their voices, like those of the entire cast (and in several songs sung fully in Italian) are superb in a very interesting, often difficult score that includes the influences of Broadway, hot jazz, modernist dissonance, and opera.

And how could one remain unchanged amid so much sound and luster? Wintersteller's bright and matter-of-fact Margaret turns convincingly inward to show her own hurt and hopes. Her performance is a strong portrayal of a woman taking up the pen of her own fable.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at mgrumbling@hotmail.com.

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA | Book by Craig Lucas | Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel | Directed and choreographed by Charles Abbott | Music Direction by Edward Reichert | Produced by the Maine State Music Theatre, in Brunswick | through June 20 | 207.725.8769

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