Light in the Piazza by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theater

March 18, 2013.By Janet Preus, HowWasTheShow.

Nobody does musical theater better than Theater Latté Da. Notice I didn’t qualify that with an “in the Twin Cities.” If theater were a competition (and thank heavens that it isn’t) this company could offer courses in how to do it right. I don’t gush often, but I’m gushing now.

First lesson: How to pick shows.

In the midst of a tidal wave of shows with decidedly adult language and content, Latté Da gives us “The Light in the Piazza,” an exquisite musical version of an achingly romantic novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Set in Florence, Italy, in the 1950’s, it may be impossible to find a more appealing locale. Furthermore, its lovers are genuinely sweet and innocent, and its protagonist struggles with honest motives to do the right thing.

Second lesson: Casting for success.

Jessica Fredrickson with her sparkling voice was exactly right for the innocent Clara. Silvery notes just seem to fall out of her effortlessly.  Aleks Knezevich as her barely-old-enough lover, Fabrizio, is full of youthful charm, an irresistible puppy—with an absolutely extraordinary voice. To quote another musical, “Holy cow!”

One might think that, as a musical, it will be the lover’s tale to tell, but there is a much more interesting story locked in the heart of Clara’s mother, Margaret, played so gracefully by Kathleen Humphrey. You might know this story, but I believe that Humphrey will show you something you didn’t see before.

Steven Grant Douglas provides some comic relief as Fabrizio’s disfavored brother. His presumed philandering makes sparks fly with his wife Franca, played by Erin Capello. She’s a powerhouse singer and plays the role with ease. Her “sister-in-law song,” “The Joy You Feel” owned that scene.

Although Bill Scharpen as Fabrizio’s father quite unnecessarily hollers his lines, he is a tidy fit for a dashing mature gentleman.

Sarah Gibson as Fabrizio’s mother gets the plum moment of the play when she faces the audience and announces, “I don’t speak English, but you need to know what’s going on here,” whereupon she explains, singing in English. Having some characters step in and out of the world of the play — however briefly — helped to keep a picturesque and tortuously romantic story from feeling too sentimental or dated.

A small ensemble of top-notch singers rounds out the cast for a glorious choral blend. Note to writers: More, please!

Third lesson: Let the story breathe and the music speak.

This is complex, musically – a soundscape of mid-century popular-standards-become-contemporary-art-songs: sophisticated and smart but not intellectualized in the least. Good, high-class theater writing by Adam Guettel (the grandson of Richard Rodgers) on music and lyrics, with a book by Craig Lucas.

In many respects this is more of an opera, stylistically, than a traditional Broadway musical. No dancing, for one, although there’s plenty of delicately choreographed movement. Yes, there is spoken dialog – some of it in Italian, but quite understandable, nonetheless, in a delightful bilingual tangle.

Artistic Director Peter Rothstein may have a tendency to over-perfect; I’m admitting my preference for a little danger on that stage. But it seems petty to complain about near perfection. Denise Prosek is simply top-of-the-line for musical direction, also at the piano anchoring a lovely, live string ensemble.

There’s an inherent challenge in transferring this story to musical form: What about Clara and her limited abilities? One can’t just have her singing charming little child-like tunes (and they don’t), but how, then, can her limitations be portrayed? The musical contains it in a handful of innocent remarks that come off a little ditzy, but nothing more. If you’re willing to buy into the penchant, at the time, to keep illnesses and imperfections hidden, I doubt that this will bother.

I would like to see them back off on the amplification of the accompaniment. Not needed. And then they can lighten up on the singers mics, too. Also good.

“Light in the Piazza” runs through April 7 at the Ordway McKnight Theater. Highly recommended.

'Light in the Piazza' review: 2 veterans shine in complex drama

March 17, 2013.By Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press.

It's not giving away anything about Theater Latte Da's "The Light in the Piazza" to say that its ending could be described as happy-with-a-question-mark.

Questions hang over the morally complex musical, starting with: What's a mother to do when her brain-damaged daughter falls in love on a vacation to Italy? It is the early 1950s and Margaret Johnson is vacationing in Florence with twentysomething Clara. They're having a swell time, even if Clara does seem oddly taken with the statue of David's junk, until they meet a charming local, Fabrizio, who falls for sweet Clara (her name, after all, means "clear and bright" in Italian). Margaret tries to hustle her daughter out of Florence pronto but the attraction remains and she has to judge whether her daughter, whom Margaret tells us is emotionally stuck at age 12, nonetheless deserves this shot at happiness. More importantly, Margaret must decide whether to tell Fabrizio and his family.

Latte Da's "Piazza" fits perfectly in the Ordway's intimate McKnight Theatre. A chamber-sized musical with a small cast and orchestra, the scale of the production feels exactly right. The moral questions in "Piazza" may be far-ranging but the musical -- and Latte Da's appealingly modest production -- asks them quietly, without pretending to have all the answers. In fact, the real finale will probably take place not on stage but in theatergoers' cars on the way home, as they debate whether Margaret makes the right decisions.

No question, though, that director Peter Rothstein made the right decision in casting two veterans of Bloomington Civic Theatre's 2010 production of "Piazza" in his version. The purity of Jessica Fredrickson's voice instantly announces Clara as a naif, which means Fredrickson never has to overdo her character's childlike qualities. Similarly, it would be possible for the character of Fabrizio to alarm us -- a stud on the make in the land of frequent butt-pinching? -- but Aleks Knezevich instantly establishes him as a decent, devoted gent. Maybe because the two actors have played these roles before, they even go a little further than the script, intriguingly hinting that Clara is capable of more understanding than her mother knows and that Fabrizio intuits more about Clara than anyone thinks.

Those graceful notes are vital to a musical this delicate but, elsewhere, things feel slightly off. A scene in which Clara overhears her mother discussing her condition, for instance, is awkwardly staged so that we almost miss Clara's crucial reaction. And, although Kathleen Humphrey sings beautifully and is amusing in Margaret's many asides to the audience, she hasn't captured the tortured inner workings of the character. Margaret's impossible dilemma -- disappoint her daughter or, possibly, doom her forever -- is the stuff of Greek tragedy (sorry, Italy) and Humphrey isn't quite there yet.

I'm also not nuts about the set, which features 4-foot-tall cutouts of ancient buildings that the actors move around the stage. Maybe their cartoonishness is supposed to represent Clara's naive view of Florence, but they look like they'd be more at home in a high school prom with the theme "To Rome, With Love." The good news is that the people moving around those buildings -- the chorus -- are delightful, and Adam Guettel's sophisticated score is pretty and smart; at the exact moment when you think you've heard enough of characters pouring out their melodramatic hearts, along comes a snappy number to make fun of all the heart-pouring.

Guettel is the grandson of legendary composer Richard Rodgers (of "and Hammerstein" fame), but his lyrics are as important as his music, and the Latte Da cast does right by them, landing the jokes and subtly emphasizing key passages such as a line sung by Bill Scharpen as Fabrizio's father. "Love is mysterious and sometimes dangerous," he sings, and this "Light in the Piazza" makes sure that message is never lost.

"The Light in the Piazza" by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

March 16, 2013.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

Theater Latte Da's new production of The Light in the Piazza is an absolute dream of a musical. From the moment the first chord was struck by the five-piece onstage orchestra, it cast a spell on me from which I hoped I would never awaken. The 2005 multiple Tony-winning musical* features a stunningly gorgeous score (written by Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein), and a beautifully romantic story, with a twist. Theater Latte Da's production is fairly straight-forward and simple, allowing the beauty of the piece to shine through. Even though it's a new musical, there something about it that feels classic and timeless. I was moved to tears on several occasions by the music, brought to vivid life by the talented ensemble of musicians and actors.

Light in the Piazza is based on a novella of the same name, and tells the story of a woman named Margaret and her daughter Clara travelling to Italy in the 1950s, a place Margaret hasn't visited since her honeymoon with her now-distant (geographically and emotionally) husband. Clara meets a local boy named Fabrizio and falls in love. Margaret has dedicated her life to protecting her daughter, for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds, but begins to see that perhaps it's time to let Clara grow up in her own way. We also meet Fabrizio's complicated family. This is a story about many kinds of love, Clara and Fabrizio's innocent and sweet new love, the complicated love of several married couples, and perhaps most touching of all, the love between a mother and daughter whose lives have revolved around each other for years.

In characteristic Latte Da style the show is perfectly cast. Jessica Fredrickson's lovely voice is perfectly suited to Clara, and she brings a charming innocence to the character. Kathleen Humphrey creates a complex and layered character in Margaret; her struggles to do right by her daughter are heart-breakingly evident in her face. Aleks Knezevich is charming as the young and in love Fabrizio, and his gorgeous voice almost made me forget that Matthew Morrison originated the role on Broadway. Jessica and Aleks have a believable and beautiful chemistry, not surprising since they are engaged in real life (could they be any cuter?), and they sound incredible together on these sweeping love songs. Everyone in the small ensemble is great in their multiple roles, as they populate the city of Florence with any number of characters strolling through the piazza, often speaking in Italian. Standouts include Erin Capello as Fabrizio's unhappy and jaded sister-in-law Franca, in stark contrast to the naive Clara, and Bill Scharpen as Fabrizio's elegant father who spends a lot of time with Margaret as their children are getting to know one another.

The music of The Light in the Piazza is something quite special. I remember reading that Adam Guettel first composes all of the music, then goes back and adds lyrics where necessary. Several of the songs are sung party or entirely in Italian, and unlike at the opera, there is no English translation available. But with music this emotional and expressive, you don't need to know exactly what Fabrizio is saying in "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" to understand what he's feeling. Some of the singing is neither English nor Italian, just a wordless singing that is pure musical expression, as in the touching love song "Say It Somehow." Fabrizio and Clara don't speak the same language, but somehow they understand each other. Similarly, the audience doesn't need to have the words spelled out to understand the emotion of the scene. The five-piece orchestra (directed by Denise Prosek) is much smaller that the original Broadway production; it has been stripped down to the essentials - piano, violin, cello, bass, and harp (harp!). In the intimate space of the Ordway McKnight Theatre, it's just right.

The stage of the McKnight Theatre has been transformed into a picturesque representation of the Italian city of Florence by scenic designer Rick Polenek. Two dimensional cardboard cutouts of famous buildings and statues stand in the background, moved around by ensemble members. They almost look like illustrations in a book, which adds to the feeling that we're inside a fairy tale. The costumes (by Rich Hamson) are pure perfection. The women wear a parade of 50s style dresses, complete with full skirts with tulle, and matching hats, gloves, shoes, and purses. The men are in smart suits with hats. The showpiece is Clara's perfectly lovely tea-length wedding dress (spoiler alert), and the final scene is like a beautiful painting.

As Margaret sings in the final number, love may be a "Fable," but The Light in the Piazza makes you believe. It's a wistful, dreamy, romantic fairy tale. But it's not all sweetness and light, there's enough harsh reality to keep you grounded. It's a fitting conclusion to what has been another wonderful season for Peter Rothstein and Theater Latte Da. It began with Sondheim's Company last fall, which, despite being 40 years old, felt like a contemporary and often cynical look at modern marriage. Then came Aida, a big spectacular Broadway-style rock musical. The Light in the Piazza is a gorgeous new musical that feels like a classic. This season has displayed a really nice variety that showcases Latte Da's talent at bringing musical theater to life. 

Go see this gorgeous new classic, playing now through April 7, and like me, you will leave the theater singing, "now is... I am... happiness!"

Love blossomed for couple on The Light in the Piazza

March 12, 2013.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

For the next few weeks, Jessica Fredrickson and Aleks Knezevich will get to rehearse their own upcoming wedding every night onstage in Theatre Latte Da's production of Light in the Piazza.

In the show, they play Clara and Fabrizio, the lovers at the center of the musical. The two will have their own nuptials in May, but the connection to the play doesn't end there. The two met at the Bloomington Civic Theatre several years ago, and started dating after playing the same roles in that company's production of The Light in the Piazza.

"I remember that when we started Piazza and went through that process I thought, 'I like the girl.' We both decided on our own to be professional, and waited to tell each other until after the show," Knezevich says.

They let their feelings be known after the closing-night party, and became inseparable following that. "We would make out onstage every night and marry each other in the show," Fredrickson says. "When I was walking down the aisle every night, I could see this happening for real."

"I felt the same way," Knezevich says.

Their relationship offstage, and their experience together in the pervious production, has allowed the two to explore more territory in their characters and their relationship with the characters. They also have a different director (Peter Rothstein for Theatre Latte Da; Joe Chvala for Bloomington Civic Theatre) this time around.

"There's a different take on every aspect of the show. For my character, we are playing a bit more with her unique characteristics and physicality. The first time around, we towed the line with a little more normal interpretation," Fredrickson says, alluding to the secret of Clara's character that becomes a vital part of the story.

The two didn't spend a lot of time going back over what had come before. "It's like riding a bike, it will come back. I wanted to leave that space for this artistic staff. It's nice to have a different perspective on it," Knezevich says.

While the score is difficult to sing, there are no wasted notes in Guettel's songs. All of the emotions the music evokes are intentional and precise, Fredrickson says.

And here's one last bit of romance from the duo: About a year ago, Knezevich took Fredrickson to a production of My Fair Lady in Bloomington. After the show, they went backstage to chat with the actors.

"He kind of disappeared, and then they brought me onstage. He sang 'Love to Me' from Piazza with the full orchestra, and then proposed. So, this show has a special meaning for us," Fredrickson says.