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Emotions in ‘Light in the Piazza’ reflect holiday spirit

To Sarah Marty, the holiday season is as much a time for emotion and spirit as it is a string of calendar dates. Because of its inherent sensitivity, she believes The Light in the Piazza, the next production for Madison’s Four Seasons Theatre, constitutes the perfect holiday fare.

“The Light in the Piazza is a favorite among musical theater people and one of those treasured shows that didn’t make a huge splash commercially, but found a devoted following,” says Marty, Four Seasons’ producing artistic director. “The story is poignant and compelling, so although it’s not a holiday story per se, it seemed a good fit for the season.”

The production, which takes the stage Dec. 4-13 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, should also be considered a regional premiere for the Madison area — Marty found only one other production, at the Waukesha Civic Theatre in 2009.

The musical concerns an encounter that American tourist Margaret Johnson (Tamara Brognano) and her daughter Clara (Abby Nichols) have with Fabrizio Naccarelli (Kenneth Lyons), a tall, handsome Italian stranger they meet in a Florentine piazza. A gust of wind snatches Clara’s hat off her head, carrying it across the square and into the hands Fabrizio, who catches it in midair. 

In the same way the wind snatched Clara’s hat, Fabrizio captures her heart, much to her mother’s dismay. The musical then tracks their courtship, as Margaret and Fabrizio’s family (who largely speak and sing in Italian) watch and meddle with varying degrees of concern.

But despite the simplicity of the premise, drawn from Elizabeth Spencer’s novella of the same name, there is more depth to The Light in the Piazza than first meets the eye, Marty says.

“Layered onto the core love story are several themes, including among them the transformative power of travel and the challenges of being a mother,” Marty says. “In The Light in the Piazza, there aren’t simple solutions or easy answers. There is ambiguity and doubt, and eventually, hope.”

The show’s depth and polish also are captured in composer Adam Guettel’s poignant lyrics and lush score, which won Guettel two of the show’s six Tony Awards in 2005. The harmonic complexity of Guettel’s score, in fact, has caused it be labeled more operatic than most musical theater, an assertion that David Ronis, the show’s director, disputes.

“There are musical passages that we might label as operatic because they represent heightened emotion and extended big moments,” says Ronis, a visiting assistant professor of opera at the UW-Madison School of Music. “The show’s ensemble is akin to an operatic ensemble, but this is not opera. This is musical theater.”

The differentiation between opera and musical theater comes in the way a work is created, Ronis says. Opera is through-composed, meaning that there is music from beginning to end and virtually all of the dialogue between the characters is sung. Musical theater, on the other hand, is a play with songs, he explains.

But there are close calls on both sides of the musical staff. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, composed in 1791, was in its day described as a songspiel, roughly translated as a play with songs. Because Mozart composed the work, however, it has over time entered the operatic canon.

Conversely, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score for the Broadway hit Les Misérables, through-composed as it is, strays perilously close to being operatic in at least that sense. But in the end, Ronis, maintains, Les Mis is still musical theater.

“The score lacks the depth and musical complexity that opera has,” Ronis says. “The composer writes more in the musical theater vein because the score lacks harmonic complexity.”

On the other hand, Guettel’s core for The Light in the Piazza contains more harmonic structure than might first be expected. He comes the closest to being truly operatic in style, says Ronis.

“The operatic passages are totally connected with the narrative,” he explains. “It is Adam’s artistry that I love about this work. It has a level of musical sophistication that is deeply part of the storytelling.”

That artistry could prove daunting, but Ronis is proud of and pleased with the high musical levels of the cast, including both students and teachers from UW-Madison.

“This is a difficult piece musically, and singing the pitches is more difficult than most musical theater because of the sophisticated level at which Adam writes,” Ronis says. “Half the cast members have musical degrees and have the training to do this kind of music more easily. They picked it up quickly and they’re fantastic.”

The complexity and quality of that music also contributes to the show’s emotional impact, which is what makes The Light in the Piazza such a moving and effective piece of theater, Ronis explains.

“I am a little bit of a sap and do choke up at some performances and there are many moments in this show where even in rehearsal I was getting choked up,” he admits. “The music makes that pathos happen and translates that mood to the audience in a meaningful way. It’s a very moving and emotional piece of theater. It’s beautiful.”

ON STAGE 

Four Seasons Theatre’s production of The Light in the Piazza runs Dec. 4-13 at The Playhouse at Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. For tickets, call 608-258-4141 or visit
fourseasonstheatre.com.

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