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Review: Limited scale both diminishes and enhances 'Light' at SCR

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It might seem odd that South Coast Repertory is presenting a revival of "The Light in the Piazza." Renowned for developing new American plays, SCR isn't known for producing musicals. What's more, the show hasn't been away all that long. Bartlett Sher's original Broadway production had a spectacular run at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2006.

But this more contained SCR production provides a unique perspective on "The Light in the Piazza," written by Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics). Director Kent Nicholson treats the work more as a drama with music than a splashy Rodgers & Hammerstein-inspired throwback.

For those who already know the show, they'll be surprised to discover new aspects to what is an unusually complicated romance. And for those who don't, they'll come upon one of the best musicals of this still young century.

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There's one serious proviso, however. Guettel's music is the outstanding element of "Light." (The score won the Tony, but it's the lilting, harp-inflected music more than the lyrics that soar.) SCR's production, employing an orchestra that's three times smaller than the one that played at the Ahmanson, can't attain the same operatic heights.

The music is still beautiful, but it's not as overpowering. The singing of the cast is also less gleaming. In keeping with a production that wants to reduce the work to a more human scale, the voices have a distinctive rawness to them.

Our focus is placed squarely on the story, which is based on Elizabeth Spencer's short 1960 novel about a well heeled American mother and her adult daughter with a hidden condition who are traveling together in Italy looking at art and soaking in Florentine culture. When Fabrizio (David Burnham), the handsome young son of an Italian clothing proprietor, falls in love with Clara (Erin Mackey), Margaret (Patti Cohenour), Clara's overprotective mother, panics.

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This implacable maternal force doesn't want to have to reveal the nature of her daughter's difference. As a girl, Clara was kicked in the head by a pony and her emotional and intellectual development have been stunted.

Margaret tries to keep the lovebirds apart, but of course this only compels them to find a way to be together.

Language differences keep the truth from Fabrizio, who can't see beyond Clara's beauty and childlike innocence. But there are questions about the extent of her disability. In Nicholson's revival, there's somewhat less ambiguity than there was in Sher's production.

Something is evidently not right with Clara. As portrayed by Mackey, she's more conspicuously erratic. When stressed, she throws a tantrum, and her girlish excitability in conversation is hard to square with her adult figure. But how much Margaret needs to protect Clara remains an open question.

Set against the dreamy backdrops of Florence and Rome, "The Light in the Piazza" attempts to frame this issue around the gamble of romantic love. "Risk is everything," sings one of the characters. "Without risk there is no drama."

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Yet there's no getting around the unusualness of this particular case. And though Nicholson has clarified character elements and plot points with great respect for the nuances of Lucas' book, the production's lack of star power and diminished musical sweep kept my emotional response to the show somewhat in check. I followed the saga with enormous interest and admired the solid level of the ensemble, but I never lost myself in the dream of Clara's happiness or the threat of its dismantlement.

To reach the sublime, this book musical really needs to be whisked away on the irrational wings of the music. Dennis Castellano, the musical director and conductor, can only take us so far with his five-person orchestra.

But it is quite impressive how much is accomplished with relatively limited resources. Statues float in out of Neil Patel's uncluttered set conjuring famous Italian tourist sites. Leah Piehl's costumes never let us forget that the show is set in 1953. Lap Chi Chu's lighting finds the luminous poetry of a musical that compares love to the shadowy light in an Italian square.

Cohenour confidently inhabits the role that won Victoria Clark a Tony. Her Margaret is all brisk business until she's forced by her daughter to reflect on the compromises she's struck in life, including an unmistakably cold marriage. Cohenour traces this internal journey with delicate care.

As Clara and Fabrizio, Mackey and Burnham make a fetching couple. Endowing their characters with youthful ardency, they lend plausibility to an attachment that is superficial yet not dismissible. The eyes have it, a critic with a weakness for puns might say.

"The Light in the Piazza" reminds me of an expensive crystal with a barely noticeable crack running through it. This metaphor can be applied to both Clara and the show as a whole. In each case the beauty isn't devalued by the flaw, but one is forced to subtly adjust one's expectations and appreciate that conventional ideals are rarely what they're cracked up to be.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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