Friday, June 30, 2023

Shining Through: Encores’ The Light in the Piazza

Anna Zavelson and Ruthie Ann Miles in The Light in the Piazza. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Director Chay Yew provides The Light in the Piazza, the final offering of Encores’ 2023 season, a slight spin on the 2005 original by casting the two lead roles with Asian-American actresses. Margaret Johnson, the role that won Victoria Clark a Tony, is now played by Ruthie Ann Miles, while her daughter Clara, a luminous Kelli O’Hara in the original, is newcomer Anna Zavelson. 

Yew makes a few missteps. In the Prologue, he has Margaret enter and see what is essentially a dream ballet of her previous time in Florence, when she and her (white) husband Roy (Michael Hayden) were newlyweds. It’s a smart way of getting at how a place you haven’t seen in years can bring memories flooding back, but then a third person joins the pas de deux, presumably a younger version of their daughter Clara. But since Clara wasn’t born yet in that earlier European foray, it makes no sense to have her intrude on Margaret’s reveries of that time. Later, when Clara sneaks away from her hotel room to meet her Italian paramour, Fabrizio Naccarelli (James D. Gish), only to become lost and terrified, Yew has the ensemble lurch closer to her with stylized choreography that he must think heightens the malice. It severely undercuts it instead. (The ensemble should react naturally to the frightened girl; the music does all the heightening necessary.) There are also sporadic, awkward staging choices, and David Weiner’s lighting design is serviceable but unremarkable. (A show with “light” in the title should inspire the designer to new heights.) Clint Ramos and Miguel Urbino’s otherwise elegant set design uses two-dimensional cardboard cutouts for the oft-mentioned nude statues that abound in Florence, which looks more like economizing than an artistic choice. Linda Cho’s costumes are for the most part wonderful, except when it comes to Giuseppe, the black sheep of the Naccarelli family. The Naccarellis own a men’s-wear shop, so even though he’s a screw-up, Giuseppe would still dress nattily. But instead of 1950s Florentine elegance, Cho clothes him in duds that would be at home in 1970s New Jersey, and he looks like he’s in some other play about some other family, a misstep that the actor, Rodd Cyrus, is unable to overcome.

But most of that doesn’t matter. Yew knows enough to let the cast, the story, and the music take precedence and shine, and they do so gloriously. Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s musical adaptation of the Elizabeth Spencer’s novella is the greatest American musical of the 21st century; I would place it in the top ten or twenty musicals of all time. Guettel’s score – lush,  romantic, emotionally overwhelming exactly when it needs to be – is a marvel. Lucas’s book improves on the source, adding both clarity and complexity to the characters’ words and actions.

Yew and his collaborators make no changes to the text to accommodate their Asian-American actresses, and, it turns out, none is needed. Miles, unlike her predecessors in the role, does not use a Southern accent, while Hayden, as her husband, does. This underscores the separation she feels from him—she’s an outsider to two cultures, the American South and Florentine Italy. And in a comic moment, when Fabrizio first meets the Johnsons, he learns their last name, and in his broken English, asks if they are related to the movie star Van Johnson. Miles draws a circle around her Asian features in response. No, they are no relation to the movie star.

The plot involves Margaret and her 26-year-old daughter Clara, American tourists in Florence, who meet Fabrizio when he rescues Clara’s hat after a sudden breeze has whisked it away. The young people are smitten, but Margaret will not allow the relationship to progress. When Clara was a young girl, a pony at a birthday party kicked her in the head when Margaret turned away to answer the phone, and the doctors said that while Clara would continue to develop physically, mentally and emotionally, she would remain a child. But the love Margaret will not allow happens anyway, and in contemplating her own cold and sterile marriage and her daughter’s future, she makes the daring decision to allow her daughter to marry Fabrizio. She chooses love for her daughter.

In the early song “The Beauty Is,” Clara sings of the longing for more than her sheltered life offers and of the parental constraints she longs to be free of: “I think if I had a child, I would take such care of her, then I wouldn’t feel like one.” In 2018, a pregnant Miles was crossing a Brooklyn street with her five-year old daughter when a car ran a red light. Her daughter was killed and she later lost the baby. It is impossible not to think of this – and it is impossible that Miles is not thinking of this – when Clara later echoes these lines: “I thought if I had a child, I would take such care of her.” A parent’s guarantee of her child’s safety is not absolute. Nothing is. The moment is utterly devastating.

Miles is extraordinary. Her voice can be a bit ragged on some of the notes, especially in her final number, the by turns angry, envious, accepting, and ultimately tender “Fable,” and it may be due as much to the punishing Encores schedule (seven performances in five days) as it is to the role’s emotional toll, but it’s the emotion that comes through. After Margaret finds Clara, lost and terrified in the street, she sings a fairy-tale lullaby to calm her down: this isn’t a trained vocalist projecting to the upper balcony but a mother singing unsteadily to her frightened child.

Yew provides a lovely moment for Miles in the second act. Clara has overheard Margaret on the phone with Roy and knows that she’s “not normal.” She flees to Fabrizio and tells him she can’t marry him because there is something wrong with her. In response, Fabrizio sings one of the most gorgeous love songs ever to grace a Broadway stage, “Love to Me.” In this production Margaret sees this outpouring of love and realizes that her daughter will be safe with him, that she has a chance for happiness that Margaret never had.

As Clara, Zavelson is very good and has a gorgeous voice. She handles the role’s sudden shifts to anger and confusion with aplomb. Gish’s Fabrizio is at his best during his songs—he can sometimes look a little blank when he’s not central to the action—but when he’s in full voice, whether singing in English or Italian, the audience never questions Clara’s love for him.

Ivan Hernandez, as the Naccarelli patriarch, is dashing and in control, until the moment he isn’t, appropriately shocking his family and the Johnsons, who think everything has been irreparably broken. Shereen Ahmed’s Franca, wife of the hapless Giuseppe, looks smashing in her period dresses, and conveys the unhappy spouse’s resentment and jealousy perfectly.

Guettel’s one misstep is the song “Aiutami,” which has the Nacarellis in an uproar after Margaret has dragged Clara to Rome in a last (and futile) attempt to end her daughter’s love affair. Unfortunately it’s the only song Signora Nacarelli (Andrea Burns) has, and while it draws laughs, it’s also nonsensical. The family matriarch warbles about her propensity for stirring up trouble and creating drama, but we never actually see her do any of that. The fireworks happen without any help from her.

But it’s a luscious production of this great musical. Rob Berman’s direction of the sixteen-piece orchestra is impeccable and gorgeous, creating cascades of feeling both delicate and shattering. At play’s end, when Miles sings “Fable,” Margaret is forever changed, and the audience feels it. There are rumors of a Broadway transfer for this production. Let’s hope it happens.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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