Stellar casting, voices make The Light in the Piazza a sterling San Pedro Playhouse success

I find it hard to believe I’m comparing the gossamer, lilting The Light in the Piazza to the San Pedro Playhouse’s subversive dance fest Altar Boyz, but if one disregards the obvious differences in genre, the productions have similar strengths: small casts, polished performances, and a professional sheen. And with ticket prices at $25 — the second highest in the city, after the Cameo Theatre — it’s heartening that the Playhouse is hiring principals with appropriate training. The credits are rightly chockablock with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance, with a few area teachers in the mix.

And that’s shrewd casting, because The Light in the Piazza is less a musical than an operetta in the vein of, say, The Most Happy Fella, or the more soaring ballads of South Pacific. (In fact, composer/lyricist Adam Guettel is Richard Rodgers’ grandson; they’re obviously keeping it in the family.) Deftly adapted by Craig Lucas (of Prelude to a Kiss fame) from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson, a southern gentlewoman on holiday in Florence; she is accompanied by her beautiful daughter Clara, who — as her name implies — can not only light up a piazza, but also dinner parties, museums, and haberdasheries. A local Florentine lad, Fabrizio Naccarelli, falls head-over-heels for this winsome American lass, and after appropriate introductions the two seem headed for a
storybook romance.

But Clara, alas, has a Distressing First Act Secret, involving her slower-than-normal psychosexual development. She must then contend with the protective ministrations of her mother as well as the inevitable culture clash with the histrionic Naccarelli family, including the larger-than-life signor and signora (William McCrary and Sherry Gibbs Houston, both well cast) and their philandering eldest son Giuseppe (Christopher Garcia). Even as Margaret frets over Clara’s increasing assertions of independence, her own crumbling marriage — to a physically and emotionally distant tobacco magnate (Byrd Bonner) — throws into relief the fairytale world of Italy and her daughter’s slim (but viable) chance at a fairytale third act.

Guettel’s romantic, Tony Award-winning score is lovely stuff and (damn!) is it well sung at the Playhouse. And, in the main, it’s well acted, too. There’s nothing simple about playing someone simple-minded, and Constanza Aileen neatly juggles the twin aspects of Clara’s personality: Her naivety is the source of both her childlike charms and her childlike tantrums. Kim Bianco is marvelous as Margaret, forever undercutting her air of Southern gentility with pointed, and peculiarly American, expressions of cynicism and distrust. There aren’t many layers to lovesick pup Fabrizio — played with earnestness and tunefulness by Travis Trevino — but his aria “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” lands with an operatic boom. And here’s a prophecy: If Jillian Cox doesn’t win a Globe Award for her performance as Fabrizio’s passive-aggressive sister-in-law, I’ll eat my hat (in the middle of a piazza). Cox’s “The Joy You Feel” — which is about as joyful as a shiv in the back — features numerous hairpin curves of tone, from Puccini-esque angst to sly musical comedy shenanigans. It’s the single best musical performance I’ve seen on local stages in months.

Speaking of stages, I first caught Piazza at New York City’s Lincoln Center — with a thrust stage — and next at Dallas’ Theatre Three, designed in the round; since it’s essentially a chamber piece, Piazza works somewhat better in those configurations than in the Playhouse’s more cavernous proscenium space. (In addition, the amplification of the small pit combo occasionally overwhelms the actors, particularly during the underscoring of key scenes.) Alfy Valdez’ attractive set — anchored by a pair of rotating archways — is obviously inspired by Michael Yeargan’s original design, though the replica of Michelangelo’s David looks a bit emaciated. (Time to work on those lifts and squats, David.) Lighting designer Steve Wire puts the, um, light in the piazza, while Rose Kennedy’s bright, 1950s costumes transport us to the nattily-dressed world of postwar Italy. Frank Latson’s direction is brisk but not always clear. Clara’s nightmare sequence — the dark in the piazza — begins confusingly, and a scene that’s largely spoken/sung in Italian — “American Dancing” — could use a stronger through-line.

But I quibble. It’s refreshing to see this musical for grown-ups finally have a run in the Alamo City. So if you’re up for a night at the opera, then by all means let there be Light.

The Light in the Piazza

$25 general, $15 student

8pm Fri and Sat, 2:30pm Sun matinees

San Pedro Playhouse, 800 W Ashby

(210) 733-7258

Through Apr 23