'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.