Friday, March 7, 2014

The Light in the Piazza—Portland Playhouse—NE Portland



Love Can Conquer All

This operatic-musical romance is written by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel and directed by Brian Weaver (P/P’s Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space at 603 NE Prescott St. through March 30th (parking lot is located 2 blocks North of the theatre, on 6th at King School).  For more information, go to their site at www.portlandplayhouse.org or call 503-488-5822.

This is based on a 1960’s, non-musical film with Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Minieux, which was based on a book, by the same name.  A play version with music appeared on Broadway and was nominated for several Tony awards.  The setting is romantic Florence and Rome, Italy.

On the surface it seems to be about a mother, Margaret (Susannah Mars) and her daughter, Clara (Merideth Kaye Clark), on vacation in Italy.  The mother seems highly protective of her daughter, especially when she meets one of the local boys, Fabrizio (Michael Morrow Hammack).  He quickly wins her over and wants to introduce her to his family.
He arranges a meeting with his father (David Meyers) and mother (Pamela South), as well as his brother, Guiseppe (Drew Harper), and his wife, Franca (Jennifer Goldsmith).
Margaret is quite taken with his father, herself, as she seems to be in a loveless marriage with her long-distance husband, Roy (Grant Byington).  To say the least, she is finally won over by her daughter’s enthusiasm and the charm of the local family.  A marriage is arranged.

But all is not as it seems.  The reason for Mom’s hovering over her Clara is that she is “special.”  She had an accident as a child and would be considered to have developmental disabilities since then.  It does seem that age may have something to do to halt the marriage but not as you might suspect.  I won’t reveal the twist but, let’s just say that, love will out in the end.

The relationship between mother and daughter is a distant cousin to Mama Rose’s to her daughter in Gypsy and, perhaps, Amanda and Laura in The Glass Menagerie.  The mother, unhappy in her life, attempts to recreate herself through her child.  And, if the child is also dependant on the Mom, it only increases that unhealthy bond.

But the theme seems to be that, just because there might be differences between people in age, of physical and emotional challenges, cultural, religious, social and economic standings, that doesn’t mean that they can’t love one another just as sincerely as people, whose pieces do all fit neatly into this jigsaw puzzle called Life.  As the poets proclaim, love can conquer all.

Much of the play is sung, operatic-style, and some of it is in Italian.  But you really don’t need a translator to convey the emotions of the story.  Music, like love, is also a universal language.  And the rendering of this story in those terms is extraordinary!  The whole cast is at the top of their game musically.  And the perennial, Mary McDonald-Lewis, as the dialect coach, is key to the Italian accents.

And Eric Nordin as the Musical Director and pianist, is the man of the hour.  He is crucial in their success.  Likewise, Weaver, as the Director, has revived the storytelling style of theatre, by having a top-notch cast, create a story with minimal setting and letting the audience, with their imagination, participate in the artistic process.  He has the settings whisk by one is such a smooth way that you never lose track of the plot.  A process devoutly to be wished by all directors.

Clark, as the young girl, has an amazing voice!  She could easily be at home on the musical or opera stage.  A stunning voice in a lovely persona.  Mars, as her Mom, is an icon of local theatre.  She is simply at her best in this role.  The complexities and emotions of this character are beautifully transmitted to the audience by this consistently powerful actress/singer.  Meyers, as the father, is also worth noting, as you can easily identify with old world values through him.  The whole cast and ensemble was first-rate.

I would recommend this show, especially for the amazing voices/singing by the cast.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.