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  • Cathy Burroughs

Luminous and Unexpected Light in the Piazza Shines with Brilliance at Downtown Atlanta’s Theatrical


Theatrical Outfit’s Light in the Pizza is an intimate and compelling gem of a chamber musical which sometimes veers into the turbulent and sweeping waters of the operatic running through May 15th. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer that was made into a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux, this superb and beautiful Light in the Piazza has an exceptional cast that could equal or surpass any on Broadway. The production is masterfully navigated with nuanced and inspired direction by the 29-year Producing Artistic Director of Georgia Shakespeare (sob!) Richard Garner; music direction by Alli Lingenfelter, Suzi Awarded for best musical direction for Rent, and admirable support from newly named Associate Artistic Director who both cast and Associate Directed the show, Clifton Guterman. Their impeccable Light gleams with transcendental prismatic brilliance.

With book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, Light is at once an insouciant 50’s European travelogue love romp in the vein of early Audrey Hepburn (think Roman Holiday) or Gene Kelly (think Singing in the Rain), then pivots to a darkly ominous discordant Sweeney Toddian thriller. It then becomes a wild Vaudevillian Felliniesque parody of an overwrought Italian family, who all, by the way, each speak perfect Italian. In another scene we watch a Frank Capraesque Transatlantic phone exchange with Margaret and her husband - a take on marriage in an intimate close up and then there are other intervals throughout the evening of waxing grand opera laced with the bouyance and mania of a Damon Runyon pastiche of a street scene with a solid dose of slap stick. We ultimately land back at the smart and soulful high fashion Love Italian style with enough twists and uncertainty to keep us all guessing as the play hurtles towards it conclusion.

This is all done wearing costume designer Linda Patterson's stunning and meticulously detailed gem-toned silks and perfect tailoring of 50’s period suits, frocks, hats and fascinators right out of Italian Vogue or vintage Harper’s Bazaar. A special shout out to Patterson. Anna Wintour’s got nothing on you! Bravos go to really all the designers of this beautifully crafted production: set by Kat Conley; lighting by Joseph A. Futral, projections by Rob Dillard with props by Maclare “MC” Park and hair and wigs by George Deavours.

Light in the Piazza is a rare hybrid which reminds us in some ways in content and intensity, if not period, of Stephen Sondheim’s underappreciated musical Passion, a galvanizing paeon to love, obsession and beauty. Unlike Passion, Light in the Piazza has been richly rewarded, lauded with six Tony awards because of, or in spite of, its overarchingly archetypal and atypical operatic score by Adam Guettel, grandson of composer Richard Rogers.

Set amidst the art, museums, churches and architecture of both Rome and Florence including a statue of David, this dramatic love story moves in fits and spurts as wealthy and protective mother Margaret Johnson takes her mysteriously afflicted daughter Clara on holiday from the insular South to the rarefied capitals of Italy. Their holiday soon becomes a maelstrom drawing them both into their daughter’s destiny. Light in the Piazza shares some kindred ground with the great West Side Story or the layered and moving treatise to the ambiguities of marriage - the wonderful Company.

Photo: BreeAnne Clowdus

While the mother played beautifully by the towering and less obvious than you would think Christy Baggett is the spiritual center and has the most notable dramatic arc, it is the daughter actress Devon Hales that brings us to our knees. Her miraculous part skylark/ part angel Clara reminds us of other break out roles: Merrill Streep in Kramer vs Kramer; Pattil LuPone in Evita; Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone; the young Patty Duke as the young Helen Keller; Natalie Portman’s first role in the 1994 thriller Leon or French Actress Audrey Tautou’s epiphany in Amelie.

Here Hales is matched with grace and ferver as well as comedy and hi jinks with her wild-eyed frenziedly desperate Italian beau Fabrizzio (Tim Quartier). His Italianismo to the nth degree family: father, Signore Naccarelli (Michael Strauss); mother, Signora Naccarelli (Carolyn Dorff); brother, Guiseppe (Joe Knezevich); and brother’s fetching Sophia Lorenesque wife Franca (Randi Garza) with a brief but moving cameo as Roy Johnson (Chris Kayser), Clara’s father and Margaret’s husband as well as its charmingly adept and adroit ensemble - all make for a motley though elegant cosmopolitan culture clash of a cast, and all, just terrific, with exalted vocal performances throughout.

But, it is Devon Hale’s unflinching emotional luminosity as Clara, Margaret’s daughter, positioned in the eye of this romantic firestorm, that is a revelation. Possessing a translucent stripped down vulnerability and unadorned purity of spirit rarely seen, it is Hales’s performance which takes the night. At the heart of the play are the high wire risks and anxiety associated with first love; here also is a homage to the intricacies and rewards of family life as well as to the courage and wisdom required to live a life of unbridled passion and unfiltered authenticity.

For tickets call the Box Office at 675-528-1500 or scope out www.theatricaloutfit.org. Find easy on-street parking or park right across the street. How fun to be in the hurly burl of late night downtown Atlanta. In front of the theater horse drawn carriages gallop and busses and trolleys pass in our two theater downtown theatre district with their moving marquees and the lighted glass frontage of the theater. Theatrical Outfit’s Balzer Theater at Herren’s is located at 84 Luckie Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30303, adjacent to The Rialto. Do subscribe now. Next year’s season promises to collectively hit it out of the park in every respect with every show looking like a winner. It is easy to see and feel how Theatrical Outfit has broken all previous box office and attendance records this year, careening to new heights. Thank you, Tom Key Artistic Director for two amazing decades and his noble team with Lee Foster as Managing Director – both at the helm of this fine Outfit.

#atlantaartsculture #cathyburroughs

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