Wednesday, January 20, 2016

NextDoor Theater Presents "The Light In The Piazza" - A Little Bit of Florence In Winchester

Until last week had never attended a NextDoor Theater show, but I really had been looking forward to catching "The Light In The Piazza."  At the last minute, my guest, who was also to be my ride to Winchester from the bowels of Central Square, had to cancel.  So, I combined the wonders of MBTA Commuter Rail and Uber to find 40 Cross Street in Winchester (FYI - Cross Street also encompasses Woburn, and that 40 Cross Street is not very close to the theater!)  My trek to Winchester was more than justified by a delightful production of this multiple Tony Award winning musical.

I learned that NextDoor Theater has deep roots in this community. Artistic Director Brian Milauskas is a lifelong resident of the town.  He wanted to give his home town a place where art could serve to build a sense of community.

"The Light In The Piazza" is set in the 1950s, primarily in Florence, Tuscany.  Mother Margaret Johnson (Lynn Shane) and her daughter Clara (Caitlyn Oenbrink) are vacationing in Italy, leaving behind Roy (Tom Richardson), the head of the family who is left in North Carolina to run the family cigarette business. While father is home in Ike's USA tending to the tobacco, things begin to smolder for mother and daughter when charming Fabrizio (Serge Clivio) set his sights on lovely Clara when the meet in the piazza after a fortuitous gust of wind has lifted Clara's hat off of her head and Fabrizio chases after it and retrieves it for her.  Now it is time for him to chase after Clara, with whom he is instantly smitten.  Mother is not pleased that a spark of potential romance seems to have been struck, and she does everything she can to extinguish that spark before it bursts into flame.  But Fabrizio is persistent and keeps finding ways to put himself in the trajectory of the Johnson's meanderings through the Academy, the Uffizi, the Duomo and other iconic Florence tourist haunts.

Things get complicated when we learn that as a result of a pony riding accident when she was twelve, Clara suffered head injuries that have left her not quite right - "special," as her mother euphemistically proclaims.  Fabrizio is smitten with her anyway, as is his family - Father (Paul Soper), Mother (Karen Fanale), Brother Giuseppe (Alexander Stravinski), Giuseppe's combative wife Franca (Katie O'Reilly).  Rounding out the cast are Margaret Felice as Tour Guide and Dan Prior as Priest.

Written in operatic style, much of the story is told in recitative fashion - some sung and some spoken - by Margaret.  Ms. Shane shoulders much of the burden of carrying forward the arc of the story of Clara's accident and subsequent deficiencies. Margaret's sheltering of Clara becomes cloying and annoying.  The Naccarelli family would like to see the young lovers wed, but the Johnsons are opposed - with Mr. Johnson weighing in by long distance phone calls from America.  Those conversations reveal that all is not right with the Johnson's marriage.

Whenever Clara wants to see Fabrizio or talk about him, Margaret in vain tries to steer the conversation to safer waters: "Look how the light in the piazza dazzles."  The concept of light becomes a metaphor for Margaret and Clara each beginning to see many things in a new light. Margaret begins to consider that Clara may be capable of marriage, and that her own marriage is not all sunshine.  She is susceptible to the chaste kiss of Mr. Naccarelli that fans a flame in her that had long been smoldering for lack of marital oxygen or spark.

In casting these performers, Director Adam Schuler clearly placed a premium on finding actors with wonderful singing voices.  Backed up by a fine five-piece band led by the always effective and professional Music Director Dan Rodriguez, the cast delivers strong vocal performances from beginning to end.  Ms. Shane was strong in carrying off the main role, and Mr. Soper mesmerized the audience with his strong operatic voice.  The two of them shine in the duet "Let's Walk."

As Clara, Ms. Oenbrink pulls off the difficult task of being vulnerable and innocent yet strong enough finally to stand up to her mother and insist on making her own choices.  Her song "The Light In The Piazza" is a highlight.

For this story to hold the attention and emotions of the audience, the chemistry between Clara and Fabrizio must be present and palpable.  In this case, the spark is there.  As Fabrizio, Serge Clivio not only brings fine vocal technique to his songs ("Il Mondo Era Vuoto" and "Passeggiata" are early examples), but he distinguishes himself by the quality of his acting as he sings and woos Clara.  He is young, naive, insecure, hesitant, but at the same time charmingly persistent and winsome.  I am sure that every female in the audience was hoping that the wind might blow their hat into his path.  Mr. Clivio used his hesitant gait, posture, halting broken English phrases, gestures, facial expressions and his penetrating eyes to paint a nuanced picture of an Italian teenager hell bent on winning his principessa, not matter what it would take.

Serge Clivio portrays Fabrizio
"The Light In The Piazza"
NextDoor Theater
Through January 30th
Photo by Rishi Basu
It was a delightful evening that was well worth the trip to Winchester - and to Italy.

This production will run through January 30th.

The Nextdoor Theater Company presents

                    Book by Craig Lucas
                    Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
                    Directed by Adam Schuler
                    Music directed by Dan Rodriguez
                    Lighting design by Michael Wonson

                   January 15th to 30th
                   Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
                   Sunday, January 24th @ 2pm
                                       Followed by a talk back with the cast
                   Thursday, January 28th @ 8:00pm

Nextdoor Theater Website



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