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Review: Lovely performances bring 'Piazza' to life

| Monday, Aug. 24, 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.

“The Light in the Piazza” is a musical drama that can't quite make up its mind.

When Becki Toth's Margaret is singing near-arias, such as “Dividing Day” or “Fable,” or when Antoinia Botti-Lodovico's Franca lends her full voice to “The Joy You Feel,” it's an opera.

But when the young lovers Fabrizio and Clara, played by Joshua Grosso and Lindsay Bayer, perform the duets “Passeggiata” and “Say it Somehow,” it feels like a traditional musical about young lovers.

Maybe it's best not to worry over definitions and boundaries, but just give ourselves over to the truly lovely performances in this lovingly created production from Front Porch Theatricals.

Because of its story, I've never been a fan of this musical created by playwright Craig Lucas and composer and lyricist Adam Guettel.

Set in Italy's Florence and Rome in 1953, it's about a mother, Margaret, and her 26-year-old daughter, Clara, revisiting the sites Margaret visited on her honeymoon.

They meet Fabrizio, a young Florentine. Fabrizio and Clara are immediately smitten and pursue a relationship that does not sit well with Margaret.

Initially, we think Margaret is being overly protective, or maybe she's jealous: Margaret's husband, Roy, has opted to stay home in Winston-Salem, N.C., rather than join them on this nostalgic trip.

The problem is a little bigger than that.

Clara is, as Margaret says, “a special child.” Her brain was damaged in a childhood accident that left her a perpetual 12-year-old inside the body of an adult woman.

Because of the language differences, Fabrizio and his family fail to notice this reality, and Margaret is powerless to stop the young couple's march toward the altar.

There are some road bumps on the march to a happy ending when Fabrizio's father realizes that something's amiss.

But Lucas and Guettel never really explain how Signor Naccarelli's concerns are overcome or what will happen when Fabrizio realizes his wife will fail to mature along with him.

In some ways, that doesn't matter.

Despite what publicists will tell you, the focus of this musical isn't really on the young lovers. The point is Margaret's journey as she comes to terms with the realities of her life as a wife and mother.

Toth is heartbreakingly real as a woman attempting to communicate with a husband who long ago checked out of their marriage, a daughter who can't understand her circumstance and the huge Naccarelli family who keep interrupting her.

That theme of communication is enhanced by the fact that the Naccarellis — with occasional exceptions — speak and sing in Italian throughout.

Don't let that be a reason not to attend.

You may not understand the words, but director Stephen Santa and his cast work to ensure the emotions, intentions and story are clear.

The show's nine characters and their relationships are vividly rendered from Botti-Lodovico's Franca, Fabrizio's sister-in-law, and her cheating husband, Giuseppe, played with an air of nonchalance by Patrick Cannon, to Grosso and Bayer's sweetly innocent and sincere lovers.

Jeff Howell plays Fabrizio's bilingual, sensible and compassionate father, and Cynthia Harding enlivens his almost entirely Italian-speaking wife.

An ensemble of four screens and furniture waltzes around the stage to simulate changes in locale.

The music is lovingly rendered in a new orchestration for five that suits the intimate New Hazlett Theater space, as well as the intimacy of the story.

While the story is likely to leave you with unanswered questions and concerns, the production is an excellent opportunity to hear a cast of young — and not-quite-so-young — voices performing at the top of their games.

Front Porch Theatricals' “The Light in the Piazza” continues through Aug. 30 at New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side, at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $35, $30 in advance, $24 for students. Details: 888-718-4253 or frontporchpgh.com .

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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