Thursday, September 3, 2009

Light Opera Light on the Piazza

Just for the record, here's my review of the Humboldt Light Opera's recent production of The Light on the Piazza." I didn't want to burden the review with a particularly idiosyncratic point of view, but having grown up in the kind of Italian American atmosphere (my mother's family, relatives and friends) that probably doesn't exist many places anymore, I cast a skeptical and sometimes wary eye on the portrayal of Italians and Italian Americans on stage and TV and the movies. It amazes me that while other ethnic group cliches cause controversy or are just avoided, Italians are still portrayed as organized criminals if they are portrayed at all. I am not amused. That's not the case with this play, of course, but I'm always attentive to how the cultural nuances are handled. In this production, most of the actors were pretty successful with accents and general body language, though only a few could "talk with their hands" convincingly in the Italian manner. And the Italian priest who presides at the marriage looked the part to a scary degree, especially for a guy named Ellsworth Pence.

The first line of the review refers to an earlier part of the column, when I discuss how Robert Louis Stevenson's novel about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was changed for the stage almost immediately after the novel was published, and how those changes were amplified in the bombastic 1990s musical version. So we now join the review which is already in progress.

Though the story is of more recent vintage, “The Light on the Piazza” is another novel that received differing interpretations, first on screen and then as the musical currently presented at HSU’s Van Duzer Theatre by the Humboldt Light Opera Company, in association with College of the Redwoods.

An American mother and her beautiful daughter are traveling in Italy when the daughter sparks a romance with a young Florentine named Fabrizio. But the daughter’s charming innocence may be the product of a childhood brain injury. Originally set in the 1950s, the 2005 musical takes a different view on the ambiguity of medical labels and the cultural shame associated with those officially pronounced as not normal.

But that’s subtext to what is otherwise a musical spectacle. Though the script by Craig Lucas and the music and lyrics by Adam Guettel delve into other complications, basically it’s a stage love story, set within a gentle contrast of cultures.

The HLO production appears to be the hot ticket of the summer. Scenic designer Gerald Beck provides a dazzling set of moving platforms and screens, and director Jean Bazemore keeps the stage filled with color and movement, assisted by costumes designed by Kevin Sharkey and Virginia Ryder, and lighting by Jayson Mohatt.

The music is somewhat unusual for a Broadway show, tending towards more modern complexity and the operetta style which plays to HLO’s strength, with music direction by Carol Ryder and John Chernoff. The live orchestra conducted by Justin Sousa provides both supple accents to the singing and memorable instrumental moments.

Carol Ryder as the mother and Bill Ryder as Fabrizio’s father are familiarly brilliant. Fiona Ryder brings charm and fine vocals to the role of the daughter, Clara. From the moment he appeared, anxious and smitten, the emotional center for me was James Gadd as Fabrizio. At first he sings mostly in Italian, in a style that reminded me of old popular recordings made by Italian opera singers. Then in the second act, when his character is more comfortable with English, his performance of the climactic love song is simple, direct and yet extraordinary: the highlight of the love story.

But this show also dramatizes the pitfalls and tragedies of relationships, especially in songs sung by Carol and Bill Ryder, but also in the songs and actions of other characters, as they view their own relationships through the romance they see unfolding in front of them. Ably presenting these characters are Kevin Richards, Molly Severdia and Paula Proctor, with briefer roles made quickly credible by Phil Zastrow and Ellsworth Pence.

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