On Theater: 'Light' illuminates flaws, strengths

"The Light in the Piazza," currently on stage at South Coast Repertory, contains several elements of grand opera: outsized characters, conflict over trifling matters, even actors singing in Italian.

Originally a 1962 non-musical movie with Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux as a mother and daughter on vacation in Italy, the current version — adapted by Craig Lucas with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel — is driven by three superior singing voices in the major roles and a handsome, engaging production assembled by director Kent Nicholson.

Oddly enough, it is the excellence of the opera-level vocalizing that lifts the curtain on how artificial the story line really is. There are no real villains here, only heroes with conflicting motives, and sometimes these conflicts appear as contrived as they are contentious.

Margaret Johnson (Patti Cohenour) and her beautiful but fragile daughter Clara (Erin Mackey) are visiting Florence in 1953 when they encounter Fabrizio (David Burnham), a brash young Italian with limited English skills but unlimited passion, who falls hard for Clara. This stirs a defensive measure in Margaret, although much time passes until we learn exactly why.

While the first act is filled by Margaret's efforts to separate the young lovers, the second is a complete reversal — she strives to keep them together, while arguing on the phone with her husband back home that this union is fitting and proper.

As Margaret, Cohenour is a solid actress with a powerful set of vocal cords whose "Dividing Day" solo in the first act and "Fable" closing number in the second reach lofty heights. She is a strong mother hen without becoming a mama grizzly, a sensitive, caring woman troubled by thoughts of her own, loveless marriage and wishing more for her daughter.

The lovely, naive Clara is beautifully rendered by Mackey as a fresh, free spirit yearning to break familial bonds and start her own life. She sings the title number with blended emotions of hope and frustration, battling her conflicted feelings of familial and romantic love.

Burnham's fervent Fabrizio provides the show's driving force as he struggles with his meager English vocabulary to make his true feelings known. The closing first act scene between the two budding lovers and their duet, "Say It Somehow," is beautifully rendered.

Perry Ojeda (SCR's El Gallo from "The Fantasticks") smoothly projects Fabrizio's elegant father. Christopher Newell and Melina Kalomas are appropriately animated as the young man's brother and sister-in-law, with Kalomas snagging a good share of the physical comedy, locking lips with Burnham in one unmotivated sequence that torches the vulnerable Clara.

Martin Kildare is credible as Margaret's back-home husband, perplexed by the circumstances. SCR stalwart John-David Keller has some rich moments as a local priest.

Despite some melodramatic moments (a six-year age difference?) that serve as major plot points, "Piazza" succeeds on its beauty, grandeur and superb singing voices. Neil Patel's imposing setting dominates the stage (but not the actors) and Lap Chi Chu's soft, elegant lighting serves the show very well, as do Leah Piehl's 1950s-era costumes.

There is plenty of "Light in the Piazza" in which this vintage drama may bathe musically. South Coast Repertory doesn't often stage musicals, but when it does, they're works of art.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "The Light in the Piazza"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 23 (no 7:30 p.m. performance on Feb. 23)

Cost: Tickets start at $25

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

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