Theater review: Off-kilter ‘Piazza’ has stirring moments

Published: Monday, Nov. 18 2013 1:49 p.m. MST

“The Light in the Piazza,” BYU Theatre and Media Arts Department, Harris Fine Arts Center’s Pardoe Theatre, through Dec. 7, $16-$22, 801-422-2981 or byuarts.com/tickets

PROVO — It’s simplistic to consider “The Light in the Piazza” as the romance of a pretty American tourist and the handsome Italian she meets on a Florentine piazza.

Clara Johnson and Fabrizio Naccarelli discover love, but Margaret, Clara’s mother, and the Naccarelli family learn about continuing love. The brilliantly composed 2005 Tony-winning Best Musical tenderly ruminates on the beginnings of innocent love in contrast to the importance of nourishing established love.

In the uneven BYU production, Kimberly Olson Bunker (as Margaret) and Rebecca Peterson (as Clara) are the composed lead players opposite an actor who struggles to portray Fabrizio as a dimensional character.

Bunker shows us a hesitant mother with depth and maturity. Devoted to her emotionally stalled daughter, Margaret wrestles with entrusting Clara to nuptials amid recognizing how loveless her marriage has become. The actress is endearing, with a beautifully clear voice, and she convincingly shows her character’s wavering passion. (What does waver is a Winston-Salem, N.C., drawl.)

In “Dividing Day,” a striking and frequently performed song apart from this show, Margaret declares she is “suddenly out of love.” “Fable” conveys a mother’s hope her daughter can “love if you can/ and be loved/ may it last forever.” In a musical with many rewarding musical moments, these two songs dazzle, and Bunker engagingly conveys the stories related in each.

In the most difficult role of Clara, Peterson is darling. She is required to portray a young woman with a vibrant, strong core who is trapped by a child’s naïve view of life, and Peterson displays pure joy and determination.

The fine singer poignantly delivers two wonderful songs: a yearning plea in “The Beauty Is” and the title song, in which she proclaims her love, though “who knows what you call it?/ I don’t care/ out of somewhere/ I have something I have never had.”

Members of the Naccarelli family, each engaged in unfaithful dalliances, are notably played by Julia Richardson Carter (the signora), Ted Bushman (the signor), Tyler Hatch (Giuseppe) and Alicia Kaori Shumway (Franca). Shumway’s “The Joy You Feel” is a bitter assertion that “happiness can also scar.”

At the performance reviewed, the pacing in Act 1 was plodding and actors were tentative, but director Scott Eckern’s experienced hand was evident in a more involving, suitably timed second act. Credit Mark R. Johnson as music director for the lovely music. He conducts the vibrant performance of the five-piece piano-and-strings ensemble: Hannah Cope on harp, Mariah Wilson on violin, Karlee Budge on cello, Kelly Oja on bass and Johnson on piano.

Ashley Cook’s costumes are richly created and her carefully selected period-accurate hats very pleasing. (However, as owners of a men’s tie emporium, the Naccarelli gentlemen would display more flourish in their accessories.)

The spare set works fine, but the juxtaposition of the multiple background scenes is jarring and overpowering — and just plain wrong. Imagine trying to become engaged with the onstage proceedings while three simultaneous, large projected images dominate the background. It’s a puzzling array of snapshots to depict portions of buildings, oftentimes religious artworks and individual room interiors that frantically appear with the velocity of images spewing from a Kodak carousel slide projector.

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