ST. PETERSBURG — Even in an age when some say the theater is dying, musicals march on. They are the Clydesdales of Broadway, putting a large majority of customers in the seats.
But even the most successful musicals can fall short. They cater to brief attention spans and sacrifice depth and originality for gimmicks and star power. While theaters are right to wrestle with such difficult choices, it is also true that shows often err on the side of breezy and predictable.
Freefall Theatre’s The Light in the Piazza is a shining example of another kind. From start to finish and on every level, this show flows in ways that just aren’t seen very often, and the result is thrilling.
Based on a book by Craig Lucas, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, the story centers on a mother and daughter vacationing in Florence in the early 1950s. It is based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer. A 1962 movie starred Yvette Mimieux as Clara, the daughter, and Olivia de Havilland. It’s a romance that also raises arresting questions about culture and family, and how personality and values can shape and cement love, or undermine it. It’s lean and concise, bolstered by an unusual operatic score that does honor to the complexities contained in the characters.
The trip abroad puts both mother and daughter in the crosshairs of change. Margaret, the mother, played brilliantly by Melissa Minyard, is the reluctant change agent. The wealthy Southern wife of a cigarette executive, she is torn between an urge to control and an instinct that tells her to let go of control. At stake is Clara, a role inhabited fully and with childlike innocence by Kelly Pekar. That innocence comes by way of a brutal injury sustained as a child, one not visible to the eye.
Plans go awry with the chance meeting of a charming stranger. I think I’ll leave the plot description off there.
Nick Lerew plays Fabrizio, who is drawn to Clara. Lerew and Pekar are nearing the end of a season as artistic associates at Freefall. Both will return to New York after Freefall’s season closes. This production showcases the young actors at their best. The score brings out promising dimensions in Lerew’s singing. Pekar nails all of the emotional gymnastics required of Clara, and sticks the landing.
As for the rest of the cast and production — where to start? Director Eric Davis, who is also the artistic director at Freefall, has again left his indelible touch on the design, the look that surrounds the scenes. That ambiance somehow weaves together Italian marble, a suggestion of stone columns and movable set pieces into an art museum, a men’s clothing store, a brief sightseeing excursion to Rome and a hotel room. A cast of nine handles the roles of Fabrizio’s family (including some jaw-dropping vocals by Jennifer Byrne as Franca Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s sister), and, in one especially arresting scene, as strangers on the street who frighten Clara.
The performer who most deserves a beer after the show might not drink it, since he watches his calories. Joshua Romero, a fine dancer, plays a statue. A series of statues, actually. And he changes most of the sets himself. Romero’s work makes for one more capstone on a memorable musical.
Speaking of music, Michael Raabe’s five-piece orchestra ushers in the difficult and counterintuitive harmonies that constitute the bone marrow of this show.
I have seen dozens of well produced plays and musicals and operas since I started as the Times’ performing arts critic. During that time, I have never been tempted to see a show twice.
I have already ordered my tickets to another performance of The Light in the Piazza.