Have a love affair with “THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA”

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DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM dualcritics@comcast.net

Theatre Jacksonville and the Delores Barr Weaver Forever Fund presented the first production of 2016 with the North Florida premier of the 2005 Tony Award Winning musical “The Light in the Piazza.” Set in Florence, Italy in 1953, it is the first bilingual Broadway musical. Some of the songs are sung in Italian and a bit of the dialogue is also in that language.

The story is based on a short novel by Elizabeth Spencer, which was adapted as a musical by Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) with a book by playwright Craig Lucas, whose previous works include “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Reckless.” A 1962 movie filmed in Italia starred Olivia de Havilland in the leading role.

12525446_10153305682800205_2165465406284501096_oThis intriguing love story concerns Margaret, a middle-aged Southern housewife, who brings her daughter Clara to Florence to see the wonders of the city where she honeymooned years before. Clara quickly meets and falls in love with Fabrizio, a handsome young man who captures her attention. The mother, while sympathetic, tries to keep the two apart. Clara, although twenty-six years old and quite beautiful, has the limited mental and emotional capacity of a twelve-year old due to trauma from an accidental injury when she was much younger. While the audience picks up on her child-like behavior, Fabrizio is unaware of the issue, 12489294_10153305598405205_5956298129816014695_operhaps because of his rudimentary English skills. The Naccarelli family takes to Clara and encourages the marriage until Signor Naccarelli, the father, discovers Clara is twenty-six years old. This is totally unacceptable; his son Fabrizio is only twenty and their culture does not support the marriage of a young man to an older woman. While this is ultimately not an insurmountable problem, Margaret faces a dilemma: to sanction what may be her daughter’s only chance to find a loving, devoted husband, or to take her home to face a lonely and emotionally bleak future.

Not wanting to be a spoiler we will leave the outcome for you to discover when you see the production.

Director Michael Lipp has an outstanding cast. Carrie Thornton is believable and splendid as the mother. Carrie is a veteran of many musicals. She was last on the TJ stage in 2008 in “The Secret Garden.” In addition she has played leading roles in “Seussical,” “The Pajama Game,” “Man of La Mancha,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The Music Man.” She most recently appeared in “Godspell” in Palm Coast. Ms. Thornton contributes much of the humor in this musical along with the members of the Naccarelli family.

12466075_10153305601750205_2239877841372951413_oAs the entranced suitor Fabrizio, Juan Carlos Unzueta is fabulous; not only does he have an excellent Italian-accented voice speaking voice, he sings a couple of operatic-like songs in Italian. We especially liked “Say It Somehow,” a duet that that ended the first act.

The Naccarelli family was delightful, with exceptionally good characterizations by all. Michael Ray, whom we saw at TJ in “Hilda’s Yard” and “Lombardi,” makes his Florida debut as a singer as the father. Jennifer Paulk, in her TJ debut as his wife, has the pipes for operatic songs. She has appeared at ABET in “Blood Brothers” and at Players by the Sea in “The Great American Trailer Park.” Giuseppe, Fabrizio’s very funny brother, is in the hands of TJ newcomer Joe Kemper who is head of the theatre department at Ponte Vedra High School. Kemper is a polished performer who has appeared in a number of roles elsewhere; he also previously directed an impressive production of “Beyond Therapy” at St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre. Rounding out this Italian family is Giuseppe’s wife Franca, portrayed by Sophia Rose Loveday. Ms. Loveday brings an impressive resume filled with musical leads that she performed out California way and also locally. She has a great voice and you will be seeing more of her in the future.

12492052_10153305583935205_1461856121764909388_oThe challenging role of Clara is performed by Jacksonville University sophomore Carley Levy. She is perfect for this role with a wonderful voice. Ms. Levy, a musical theatre major, played the half-human/half-robot Delphi in JU’s November 2015 production of “Weird Romance.”

In other featured roles, Bill White portrayed Margaret’s husband Roy, who shares his perspective during trans-Atlantic phone calls. Darnell Bennett, who appeared in TJ’s “Hairspray” and “Les Misérables,” appears as a priest and Courtney Russell, who appeared as a nurse in “South Pacific” at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre, returns to the stage in her TJ debut as a tour guide and as part of the ensemble.

1240082_10153305605485205_2520176464374411969_nA talented ensemble performed a number of small roles, like townspeople, and participated as singers. They included Alec Hadden, Zachary Polendo, Rachael Rubright, and Kelly Wolfe

Kimberly Beasley, the Musical Director, teaches voice and music at Jacksonville University. This is her third production at Theatre Jacksonville; she previously was the musical director for “Hot Mikado” and “Les Misérables.” For “Piazza,” she plays Keyboard # 1 and leads the orchestra that features Derek Sweregin (Keyboard # 2), Jacob Schuman (Guitar), Edward Latimer (Violin), and Brendan Kohler (Cello).

Scenic Designer/Technical Director David Dawson created the look of Florence with Renaissance statuary that came on and off the stage. There were several scene changes in each act: moveable set pieces were used to portrayal hotels, restaurants, museums and homes. The costumes by Tracy Olin were (as always) well-researched and were visually interesting and authentic with defined waistlines and full skirts for the women and suits for the men.

Be sure to read Director Michael Lipp’s notes in the program. He has had a personal love affair with this musical, having seen it twice on Broadway, and was absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to bring it to life for Jacksonville audiences.

The Technical Production Team included: Director-Michael LIpp, Musial Director-Kimberley Beasley, Scenic and Lighting Design-David Dawson, Costume Designer-Tracy Olin, Assistant Technical Director-Garth Kennedy, Stage Manager-Sarah Brace, Light Board Operator-Audie Gibson, Sound Board Operator-Spencer Carr, Wigs-Mickey Leger, and Dresser-Kayla Fender.

“The Light in the Piazza” opened on January 15th and continues through January 31st at 2032 San Marco Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida. For reservations or additional information, call the box office at (904) 396-4425 or visit theatrejax.org.

As they say in Italian: Goditi lo spettacolo (Enjoy the show!!!)

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.