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Front Port Theatricals' 'The Light in the Piazza' challenges audience, performers

| Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Martha Smith
Joshua Grosso and Lindsay Bayer star in 'The Light in the Piazza' by Front Porch Theatricals.
Martha Smith
Joshua Grosso and Lindsay Bayer star in 'The Light in the Piazza' by Front Porch Theatricals.
Martha Smith
Joshua Grosso and Lindsay Bayer star in 'The Light in the Piazza' by Front Porch Theatricals.

Stephen Santa likes to direct shows that offer challenges.

“You always want to find a project that is challenging, because, as an artist, you always want to grow,” he says.

That's a large part of why he agreed to direct Front Porch Theatricals' “A Light in the Piazza,” which opens Aug. 21 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side.

It's a musical about young people falling in love set in Rome and Florence in 1953.

Margaret Johnson and her young adult daughter, Clara, are wealthy Americans soaking up the sights of Italy. When a gust of wind carries off Clara's hat, Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young and attractive Florentine retrieves it.

There's an instant, mutual attraction, and, before you can down an espresso, the couple and Fabrizio's family are making wedding plans.

But Margaret is reluctant.

She knows that more than language and cultural differences stand in the way of the marriage.

What the Naccarellis perceive as Clara's innocence and simplicity is not a lack of worldly sophistication but the result of a childhood accident that left her mentally challenged.

When Margaret's husband and Clara's father, Roy Johnson, arrives in Florence, it becomes clear that the Johnsons' marriage has challenges of its own.

“Ultimately, it's about storytelling; something I can connect with and explain in ways that the audience will connect with the piece,” Santa says. “It's fun to work on a show like this, because all the characters go through an incredible journey and learn things.”

When it debuted on Broadway in 2005, the musical won its composer and lyricist, Adam Gettel, the Tony Award for best original score and best orchestrations, the latter he shared with Bruce Coughlin and Ted Sperling.

“When (this musical) came out, it was the time of ‘Rent' and ‘Spring Awakening' — pop music and rock music. Then, along came this show, and it took people by surprise (and) back to the lush music of (Stephen) Sondheim or (Richard) Rodgers and (Oscar) Hammerstein,” Santa says.

“These are complex songs for actors to sing. But they are almost simple in a way and beautiful for actors to perform,” he says. “One of the fun things is that the music does have the feeling of opera and grandeur.”

When it was first performed on Broadway, the musical had a large orchestra. But to allow the show to be done in smaller regional theaters, Gettel, Coughlin and Sperling re-orchestrated it for fewer musicians.

The orchestra for the Front Porch production will use five musical instruments — keyboard, violin, cello, base and harp. The musicians will perform on stage, in view of the audience.

“I wanted (the musicians) on stage so the audience can watch them. ... They are an important aspect of the show, and I want the audience to see everything,” Santa says.

“The Light in the Piazza” challenges audiences as well as the artists.

“There is a language barrier (between the two families),” Santa says.

The Naccarellis often communicate with each other in their native Italian, leaving the audience to decipher what they are saying.

“But audience members who pay attention to gestures, tones of voice and other clues should have no problem following what's happening,” Santa says.

“We are making sure the audience is with us the whole entire time. ... The audience is primarily English-speaking and may not understand Italian, but they will understand what the characters are going through,” he says.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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