‘Light’ Shows on Stage thru June 12

‘Light’ Shows on Stage thru June 12


Local reviewer really enjoyed Altarena performance

To preclude any ambiguity, The Light in the Piazza is best thing to happen to High Street since they put in the bridge.

Furthermore, now through June 12, you don’t have to cross a bridge or wait in a tunnel to see the best theatre the Bay Area has to offer: it is here at the Altarena. Writing as a critic who sees 50 or more plays a year, this is the one you have been waiting for. Community theaters are often staid in their offerings, they are loath to take creative risks or to venture out onto an artistic limb; by sharp contrast, Alameda is fortunate to have Clay David as an artistic director. 

David is here to challenge his audience; not to underestimate them; nor to sedate them with mere entertainment. Rather than sticking to reheats and recycling an anthology of tried, tired, tested and time-worn classics of theatre Americana, David delivers exactly what Alameda should demand from its artistic director: living art. 

Quality theatre is performance art. Achieving superlative theatre involves intelligent risk and originality; not hunkering down within the ramparts of the safe and secure. Community theater often panders to subscribers — trotting out nostalgia pieces and settling for dredging up remembrances rather than delivering theatrical experiences. Real theater, is not about reruns of reruns.

Had you attended the opening night performance of The Light in the Piazza at the Altarena you would have witnessed the energized buzz of Alameda’s cerebrotonics, theatre aficionados, music critics (self-appointed and otherwise), the literati and the illuminati, the core cognoscenti of stage art and of course, the indomitable bohemian fringe.

The confluence of music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, and a sleek book by Craig Lucas, deliver this adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella into the imaginative hands of director Stewart Lyle; the rest is stage magic. Given that the setting is Firenze and the plot involves falling in love in Italy, it follows that Guettel’s score swoons romantically and soars passionately. 

Musical Director Francesca Brava pulls out all the control rods; her orchestra is on stage, hidden behind a diaphanous curtain; the music swells and flows like the Arno, inundating the audience. Contrary to the maxim of Henry David Thoreau, to wit — “Most men (people) lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” — the characters of Piazza courageously let the songs out of their hearts and drive desperation, like an evil spirit, from their thresholds.

The operatic music and lyrics highlight the colliding, conflicting and clashing feelings of all of the characters. Beware: there is something unusual about the soaring melodies; something rarely heard in American musicals. As Josh Cohen, the violinist, explained: the music is a departure from expectation and tradition. “It’s called dissonance.”

He should know, he really leans his bow into the strings to produce the dissonant sound that rightly characterizes the score. The effect is to provide a stimulating subliminal element: a message buried deep within the tonal quality of the music.

The music exposes, illuminates, the psyches of the characters. Cohen, a talented violinist rivalling Joseph Gold, wrings non-traditional strains and unsettling sounds from his instrument: the music is reminiscent of Phillip Glass (Einstein of the Beach) and Elvis Costello (The Juliet Letters).

The Light in the Piazza is set in 1953, the beginning of the Eisenhower doldrums. Margaret Johnson (played infuriatingly well by Donna Turner), is a domineering, overly-protective, smothering mother — she might give you shortness of breath — and she is stereotypic tourist: one that mispronounces and misplaces the accent on even the most rudimentary Italian words and she reads aloud from her tour book like a hack Cicerone.

Margaret is the unhappy wife of an American businessman; she is traveling with her daughter Clara. Clara is 26 but emotionally she is going on sixteen; blame it on a kick from a rented pony at her twelfth birthday party. Madison Genovese is simply dazzling as Clara; she lights up the stage; she needs no Klieg Lights; she is a veritable array of Klieg Lights.

Her exuberance when she falls in love with Fabrizio Naccarelli is absolutely contagious — the entire audience momentarily — and secretly of course —flashes back to his or her first love when he or she was convinced they had invented love itself.

Fabrizio Naccarelli, a handsome Florentine, is played by the dashing Kyle Stoner.

The passionate and romantic sparks of Stoner and Genovese are incendiary — fortunately the house smoke alarms never sounds. The Light in the Piazza evolved in Seattle in June 2003, its owners are as protective of their show as Margaret is of Clara. They are selective in approving venues for the play. Much to the credit of Stewart Lyle and David, the Altarena was approved. The critics talk about nearly all shows; but this is a show that audiences will talk about; it is not to be missed.

Tickets are available online at www.altarena.org or 523-1553.


Jeffrey R Smith is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.