There’s a light — or several, rather — in Dillingham Center at Ithaca College this week.
That light is the college theater department’s production of “The Light in the Piazza,” the classically infused, Tony Award-winning musical by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer. In the production it’s 1953, and Margaret Johnson (senior Hannah Dubner) and her daughter Clara Johnson (junior Celeste Rose) are visiting Florence, Italy. Because of a childhood accident, Clara has a mental deficiency. She is a woman in her 20s with the mind of a little girl — a “twist” to the show that doesn’t really come as much of a twist.
Seen as something of a savior for what many viewed as a depreciated state of commercial musical theater in America, “Piazza” glistened its way onto Broadway in 2005. It racked up a few Tonys and quickly became a mainstay in people’s minds as a musical with a steadfast appreciation for classical and operatic devices. The show is part love story, part family drama and dabbled with quaint imperfections that, for a musical like this, add to its message that beauty can be found in even the most unusual of circumstances.
Director and associate professor Susannah Berryman returns to familiar material after having helmed a production of “Floyd Collins,” another piece of Guettel’s, last fall. Much suited to such a successful show coming to the college stage, the focus in this take on “Piazza” is not on flashy presentation, but the performers and the illustrious music.
Senior Bruce Landry plays an endearing and vocally captivating Fabrizio, the young Italian man who has an almost too clichéd love-at-first-sight experience with Clara. He portrays the bachelor with a childlike innocence, the kind of joy a kid gets when he sees a new thing for the first time.
His counterpart, Rose, is the undoubtedly stunning star of the production, as she brings a docile but powerful soprano to Clara’s emotive numbers like “The Beauty Is” and the musical’s titular ballad in the second act. Their electrifying chemistry is warming to watch unfold. As a young boy without proficient English skills and a young woman with an ingenuous timidity, the two seem to be learning how to love each other step by step.
Dubner’s Margaret is a stark and abrasive woman with a gentle spot for her daughter. She holds fast to her conservative demeanor, and her voice — rich and developed — wonderfully captures the burden Margaret carries while caring for Clara. Important to note is Margaret’s character was written for a stage dame well over 40. But with horn-rimmed glasses and some stellar physical acting, Dubner plays the mature role with poise and precision.
There’s one downside to what is otherwise an enjoyable, enriching production: the set. The designers could have taken a minimalistic approach, with a few set pieces and strong costumes to balance, or attempted to create a more technical extravaganza, like the college’s endeavor in its production of “Chicago” last fall.
Instead, a poorly executed backdrop of Italy keeps this production’s visual appeal in a weird state of limbo as it is neither simplistically beautiful nor grand. Instead, it’s distracting and looks unfinished. The painted-on buildings create little sense of depth or space on the stage, which is unfortunate because a combination of meticulous lighting and a semi-bare stage would have served the production’s purpose tenfold compared to what was actually carried out.
Nevertheless, this production couldn’t have come at a better time. We’ll all need some light and warmth before things start to get even more frigid in Ithaca.
“The Light in the Piazza” will run until Saturday in the Hoerner Theatre at Ithaca College,