A simple set of marble-like arches belies the complexity of "The Light in the Piazza."
The Tony-winning musical, onstage at Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre, is a youthful romance. And a look at family dynamics. And an ode to middle-age regret. And a study of a mother's love. And an exploration of the freedom that comes with growing up. All these ideas are conveyed against classically inspired music that sounds more like opera than standard showtunes.
That's a lot to ask from any show.
At Mad Cow, director Aradhana Tiwari mostly succeeds at covering every base. This is a production that, despite some musical and pacing hiccups, effectively conveys its message of hope and leaves the audience thinking of love. It's not a perfect production, but it's a joyful one.
For at its heart, "The Light in the Piazza" is an ode to love — both the romantic variety and the love of life. On the surface, the story is simple. A young American woman, traveling with her mom in 1953 Italy, falls for a young man from Florence. But her oddly overprotective mother is against the pairing — the reason why gradually becomes clear, as the audience learns how the mother has been living in the shadow of a long-held secret.
Florence is a mix of the old and new, a contradiction captured beautifully at Mad Cow. An ensemble of actors play bustling Italians, carrying loaves of bread or chasing balloons, as the modern aspect of the city. The historic aspect, especially in relation to the classical arts, is enhanced by scenic designer William Elliott's marble arches. Actors carry empty picture frames to evoke art galleries, and the show's musicians play the violin, cello and grand piano onstage.
Jennafer Newberry is Clara, the besotted youngster, and she brings a charming innocence to a tricky role. Her confused frowns tug on the heartstrings as much as the radiance of her face whenever she sees her beloved Fabrizio, played by Robert Johnston.
It's easy to see why Clara loses her heart to Johnston's Fabrizio. The actor, who starred in the Orlando Philharmonic's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" in May, has a natural charm. Here, he augments that with an infectious energy that means you believe Fabrizio's heart is ready to burst.
Unfortunately the younger actors' singing voices don't always do the music justice, though Newberry delivers the title tune gloriously. Too often, however, they employ a contemporary style that's at odds with Adam Guettel's formal composition. This is especially jarring when the actors sing wordlessly, their voices meant to complement the beautifully crafted score, expertly played by a trio led by musical director Robin Jensen.
Kellie Cundiff, as Fabrizio's unhappy sister-in-law, gives her song "The Joy You Feel," about the pitfalls of love, just the right mix of humor and bite. And in another key role, Stephan Jones brings a tenderness to Fabrizio's father that juxtaposes nicely with his rambunctious family.
At the center of the show is Clara's conflicted mother, Margaret. In that role, Laura Hodos never loses sight of her character's fundamental warmth. Writer Craig Lucas has Margaret speak directly to the audience, but Hodos tells her story with more than words. When she sings of love lost in "Dividing Day," the pain is on her face. At such key moments, especially toward the show's end, it would have been nice for the action to slow for a moment, to let theatergoers catch their breath. With Hodos as a guide, the audience deserves to savor every step of this lovely, emotional journey.
'The Light in the Piazza'
• What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical
• Length: 2:15, including intermission
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; also 7:30 p.m. on two Mondays, Dec. 16 and 30; through Jan. 5
• Cost: $28.25 and higher; student, senior and military discounts available; Monday tickets are $15
• Call: 407-297-8788, Ext. 1
• Online: Madcowtheatre.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun