Seeing the light: freeFall's The Light in the Piazza (four-and-a-half of five stars)

The Light in the Piazza shines at freeFall

The Light in the Piazza
Four and a half of five stars
$33-$48. Through July 17. Wed.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; and Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. freeFall Theatre Company, 6099 Central Ave., St. Pete. 727-498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.

With its latest musical, The Light in the Piazza, freeFall Theatre sends a message to every other local theater company: You're going to have to up your game. After Saturday night's performance, I more firmly than ever believe that everyone who enjoys theater should buy season tickets to freeFall. Now.

freeFall describes this show as "deeply romantic," and while I don't agree with that description — Light tells the story of a mother's selfless love, or agape, and not eros, or romantic love — everything about this show was a joy. .

Adapted by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas from a 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer that was also made into a film, Light focuses on Margaret (Melissa Minyard) and her daughter, Clara (Kelly Pekar), on vacation in Florence, Italy. There, Clara meets handsome, impulsive Fabrizio Naccarelli (Nick Lerew), and the two, fancying themselves in love, pledge to marry. For reasons you'll have to see the show to learn, Clara's parents do not want her to marry.

Although Light is not an opera — not even close — Guettel's Tony-winning score employs some of the genre's conventions. Fabrizio and his family sing to each other in Italian (and often speak it as well); it is to the singers' credit that we don't need to know the meaning of the words to know the intent. Some of these numbers, including "Il Mondo Era Vuoto," convey the strongest emotion in the show; the context, the vocal quality (well done, Mr. Lerew) and the richness of the score make us feel and understand; translations or English would be extraneous. The masterful collaboration between director Eric Davis and musical director Michael Raabe evidences itself most strongly in the ensemble musical numbers.

Although the entire cast makes this an emotionally involving experience and an overall pleasure, Minyard and Stephan James Jones (who plays Fabrizio's father) deserve praise for exceptional performances. Margaret and Signor Naccarelli walk a tricky line between parenting and being adults in their own right, plagued by their own demons even as they struggle to navigate the best future for their respective children. Not many actors in the area could have conveyed the multi-dimensionality of these characters as seamlessly as these two do, particularly in the subtle negotiations of Act Two's “Let's Walk."

Nick Lerew demonstrated incredible depth — if you saw him in freeFall's Mr. Burns, you'll appreciate his fluidity as an actor. Both he and Pekar are members of freeFall's resident company; while I don’t want to see them in every freeFall show, à la Showboat Dinner Theater of the ’80s, their versatility shows the advantages of a residency program. Joshua Romero as the statue (don't ask which one he's supposed to be; assume he plays all the statues in Florence, and at least one in Rome) drives this production beyond lovely night out to something transcendent. The statue conceit is Davis's brainchild, something the original production did not include. A tangible incarnation of the story's spirit — the notion of falling in love so rapidly, the romance of Italy — the statue is, in many ways, the light in the piazza.

freeFall has the gift of an unconventional space, which means the set can take any form. This one, designed by Charles Murdock Lucas, seems simple but must have taken a bit of planning to orchestrate, because the actors — chiefly, the statue — move the set pieces in an elaborate choreography that sometimes resembles a ballet. Also, the "marbled" floor exemplifies the attention to detail we so often see at this venue.

A word of warning: Don't go to this show expecting a light romantic musical. I mean, absolutely, go to this show, but not because you expect a love story à la, say, Guys and Dolls. Yes, at its core, The Light in the Piazza is a love story — not a believable one, though that’s not freeFall’s fault — but it's not the story of the love you think it is: It's about a mother's love, about finding a balance between loving and letting go and about how to love the way someone needs you to love when it isn't the way you want to love.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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