Saturday, June 5, 2010

Faulkner: "The Light in the Piazza"

The Faulkner University Dinner Theatre opened its 23rd season this week with Craig Lucas' and Adam Guettel's adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella, "The Light in the Piazza", a musical that garnered numerous accolades on its 2005 Broadway run.

Set in Florence and Rome in the Summer of 1953, it tells the tale of a young couple in love -- Clara, an American tourist who falls in love with a young Florentine named Fabrizio -- a romance made innocently difficult at first by the language barrier and more seriously later by a well-kept secret from the past by Clara's mother Margaret.

Under Jason Clark South's capable direction, the ensemble of mostly veteran actors drawn from Faulkner's students & faculty and the local community are most impressive in their managing the challenges of the musical score that verges on the operatic -- a few songs and some dialogue are in Italian, and the score contains equivalencies of opera's arias, duets, a quintet, and ensemble pieces.

From the very start, however, Music Director Art Williams's excellent three-man orchestra's and the actors' body microphones were amped so high that vocal clarity was often impaired, the words disappearing into the resulting noise. Such unnecessary amplification has become so commonplace, even in professional theatres, that audiences can no longer anticipate hearing acoustical instruments or the natural singing voice -- a shame, really, and especially so in such a small venue as Faulkner's with its unquestionably gifted singer/actors.

Plot elements and characterizations are of increased importance in this take on an otherwise traditionally romantic boy-meets-girl scenario. The appeal of Italy's cultural history has drawn American tourists Margaret [Angela Dickson] and her daughter Clara [Beth Pirtle] to take it all in. Margaret, guidebook ever in hand, tries to deflect a budding love-at-first-sight romance between her daughter and a charming local necktie salesman, Fabrizio [Matt Roberson], characters who are destined to be together.

Margaret, who also serves as an occasional narrator, provides some suspense by divulging that Clara is "not what she seems"; she is slow and innocent as a result of a childhood accident, and Margaret's duty is to protect her. -- Ms. Dickson's performance is the standout in this production. She is engaged in every on-stage moment, and her journey becomes ours. Completely credible in her protective concern for her daughter's well-being, or when realizing that she needs to loosen her hold on Clara's life, and conscious always of maintaining propriety, the balance Ms. Dickson achieves between her private suffering and her public "face" is a lesson in acting, whether in scenic conversations, or long-distance phone calls to her increasingly estranged husband, or riveting our attention with her sincere and impassioned [and musically sophisticated] solo songs. The role is a challenging one, and Ms. Dickson hits every mark; a memorable performance.

As the young lovers, Ms. Pirtle and Mr. Roberson -- each also with gifted singing voices -- are engaging in their respective naivete. Their awkward first conversations, complicated by language barriers, are gently humorous and immediately put us on their side. Ms. Pirtle's ability to insert quirky mannersims into an inquisitive openness to experiencing everything, makes her genuinely attractive to Mr. Roberson's Fabrizio, while giving clear reason for her mother's concern.

The supporting principle and ensemble roles are given solid interpratations, and though the stage occasionally feels crowded, Mr. South's detailed and flexible street scene design creates an authentic Italianate feel.

Gina South's costumes evoke a 1950s style, with attention to such details as women tourists wearing dresses, hats, and gloves -- very different from today. So, what can possibly explain a disregard for the details of clerical robes for the priests and nuns, especially the fashion-conscious shoes of the nuns seen clearly below their above the ankle skirts?

"The Light in the Piazza" runs just over two hours, and the combined plot, characterizations, and strong singing make for a pleasant theatrical evening's entertainment.