Next Door Theater's "The Light in the Piazza": Not Your Average Euro-Trip

Clara Johnson (Caitlyn Oenbrink) finds beauty in Italy as her mother, Margaret Johnson (Lynn Shane), reads from her guidebook in Next Door Theater Company's  The Light in the Piazza.

Clara Johnson (Caitlyn Oenbrink) finds beauty in Italy as her mother, Margaret Johnson (Lynn Shane), reads from her guidebook in Next Door Theater Company's The Light in the Piazza.

Next Door Theater Company presents its intimate production of The Light in the Piazza, a gorgeous musical about a mother and a daughter’s trip to Italy that changes both of their lives.  Unfortunately, this production failed to change mine.  While some of the cast boast impressive voices and Music Director Dan Rodriguez creates beautiful and rich music with his six-piece orchestra (including a melodious harp player), the musical does not leave an impression.  Director Adam Schuler fills the space with activity through his capable direction, but his actors lack of the essence of their characters, supplementing them in voice but not in action.  The production showcases a rarely done and exquisite musical, but does not present a production worthy of its material.

Margaret Johnson (Lynn Shane) brings her daughter, Clara Johnson (notable newcomer to the area, Caitlyn Oenbrink) to Florence and Rome, Italy, in the summer of 1953, hoping to find a respite from their unfulfilling lives in North Carolina. When an unexpected breeze brings Clara face-to-face with a handsome young Italian man, Fabrizio Naccarelli (Serge Clivio with a gorgeous tenor voice), the Johnsons’ trip promises to bring romance and adventure as can only befit a Euro-trip. The intrigue comes from Craig Lucas’ book, based on Elizabeth Spencer’s novel, because Margaret steers Clara away from love, creating a playful toying over Clara between Margaret and Fabrizio around Florence’s landmarks.  But why does Margaret steer Clara away from a handsome and interested young man?  This question guides our interest in Act 1, whereas the answer and its implications complicate Act 2. 

The issue is that Shane never commands or demands our sympathy or understanding in Act 1 as the determined Margaret, and Oenbrink brings too much confidence and strength to her supposedly naïve Clara. Clivio never manages to captivate our love and interest, and his spying and encounters border on the voyeuristic instead of the sweet.  Luckily, the supporting cast provides some nice (though tangential) assistance in the production.  Fabrizio’s father and mother, Signor and Signora, (played by the subtle Paul Soper and the commanding Karen Fanale, respectively) offer a glimpse into a different type of romantic relationship, and their moments in “Aiutami” and “Octet” are gorgeously performed.  Likewise, Fabrizio’s brother and sister-in-law, Giuseppe and Franca (Alexander Stravinski and Katie O’Reilly, respectively), also foil the relationship between Clivio’s Fabrizio and Oenbrink’s Clara, though perhaps with a few more painful spats than sparks. Shane’s best acting and moments arise from her relationship with her stateside husband, Roy (Tom Richardson), a wealthy and opinionated businessman; they speak on a phone call and their distance, both physically and emotionally, is palpable.  Director Adam Schuler does a good job of fleshing out these stories and relationships, though he over-directs many of these scenes, emphasizing the movement for these characters and their actors in order to keep the energy high enough to sustain our attention.  The effect is a congested and micro-managed production in the intimate Next Door Theater’s space.

Fabrizio Nacarrelli (Serge Clivio) sings passionately in Next Door Theater Company's  The Light in the Piazza .

Fabrizio Nacarrelli (Serge Clivio) sings passionately in Next Door Theater Company's The Light in the Piazza.

The music, however, is gorgeously sung, and the tone from most of the cast is exceptional, especially from Oenbrink’s Clara during her “The Beauty Is,” Clivio’s Fabrizio during his “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” and most of the ensemble during “Octet.”  The sound from the small but effective string orchestra is warm and lush, providing excellent transitions between scenes. Rodriguez keeps the music at a nice level, especially given the acoustic challenges for the space.  The cast mostly rises to the same level for the difficult music, though sometimes their sound overpowers the space; in a larger theatre, their musicality and skill would be much more appreciated and successful.  The space is a problem with the musical’s staging, relying on a representation interpretation of the script and story requires multiple set changes, which Schuler and Set Designer Brian Milauskas accomplish with moveable pillars.  However, a cumbersome bed and a useless sofa crowd the space and offer little practicality, despite them delaying the scene transitions.  The production might be more effective with a “less is more” mentality, both in the set design and staging.  Often, the movement of certain characters provided a crutch for an actor to find his or her motivation, but rarely accomplished the same purpose; most notably, Shane’s Margaret performs an over-acted (but beautifully sung) “Dividing Day.” Surprisingly, two of the most effective elements of the production were Laura Dillon’s costume design (with excellent accents for characters and an endless array of period-accurate and flattering costumes) and Michael Wonson’s effective and tonally important lighting design.

Next Door Theater Company’s The Light in the Piazza was not the production of this gorgeous musical for which I was looking.  Though a notable effort by Director Adam Schuler, the production faltered when Shane’s Margaret failed to captivate our attention and respect, Oenbrink’s Clara offered a too mature and confident presence, and Clivio’s Fabrizio lacked the charisma and chemistry to win our hearts.  While these problems with the characters detracted from my enjoyment of the musical, the expert singing and the underlying story might offer someone else the enjoyment of a fulfilling night at the theatre. Perhaps we see beauty in different places; maybe I lacked the imagination to see these performances for what they really are.  Or maybe I had higher expectations for this moving story of the gorgeous conflict in how we see ourselves and how others see us.