On Wednesday, May 11, I had the opportunity to take in my first Theatre Calgary* performance of the year (I’m ashamed to admit). Running until May 22, The Light In The Piazza – based on the novella by the same name by American author Elizabeth Spencer – follows Margaret Johnson (Susan Gilmour) and her daughter, Clara (Anwyn Musico), in 1953 as they embark on a mother-daughter getaway in idyllic Florence. Immediately we learn that Clara’s parents honeymooned in Florence “before the war”, and this trip is meant to retrace Margaret and Roy’s (Christopher Hunt) footsteps of bygone, presumably happier times.
Musico’s Clara is pure unencumbered innocence, while her mother Margaret – performed with aplomb by Theatre Calgary alum, Susan Gilmour – expertly conveys the complexities of motherhood: the deep desire to see one’s child grow, find love and experience life, while at the same time motivated by an almost desperate need to keep her child safe from harm. Though at first not apparent, Margaret has much greater need than most to shield Clara from the realities of life, a revelation that adds great emotional depth both to Gilmour’s and Musico’s performances and the story overall, but without overwhelming the enjoyment of the traditional musical genre.
The audience glimpses the story in turn through Clara’s wide-eyed joy and Margaret’s loving, patient inner turmoil as Clara meets, and quickly falls in love with, the young, idealistic Fabrizio Naccarelli (Louie Rossetti). Despite Margaret’s attempts to separate the two gently, Fabrizio is a passionate lad, meeting his would-be mother-in-law’s austerity with a naive – yet determined – sweetness.
The Light In The Piazza is the very definition of a delightful musical, filled with lilting love songs, impassioned lovelorn ballads, and introspective hymns of regret, while simultaneously conveying a deeply meaningful and multidimensional, character-driven story. Impeccably cast, each artist’s voice is strong and expressive, with outstanding vocal performances offered up by all, most notably from leads Gilmour – who’s husky mezzo-soprano is rich and smooth – Musico – a confident, vibrant soprano – and Rossetti – whose dramatic and powerful ballads are delivered in impressive Italian throughout. Though Gilmour, Musico and Rossetti dominate the musical score, Tracy Michailidis in the role of Franca – Fabrizio’s maligned sister-in-law – contributes expertly to the ensemble pieces, and delivers the most technical and emotional piece of the first act.
Nestled comfortably stage right, partly-obscured but not hidden from view, a small, five-piece ensemble featuring piano (Jonathan Monro), violin (Laura Reid), Cello (Beth Root Sandvoss), bass (Jonathan Yeoh), and harp (Olivia Ritchey), carried the sonorous strains of all 18 pieces. Conveying discovery, distress, regret and joy
Though I’m no expert in set design, The Light In The Piazza makes excellent use of the space, utilizing Romanesque columns as home, hotel, church, museum, piazza, and more, with understated flourishes – decorative wrought iron, a chandelier, gilded picture frames – to set the stage for each location, whether iconic or otherwise. One scene in particular, early in the first act, depicts Clara and her mother touring the Uffizi Gallery. As empty, golden frames drop down from the ceiling, the audience is transported to the gallery as Clara – in what I found to be one of the most engaging musical numbers – points to specific ‘pieces’, each one depicting a dream, ambition, hope or desire she harbors and hopes to make reality, bathed in the romantic Florentine light.
The Light In The Piazza is heartwarming, moving, and entertaining in equal measure. The Max Bell Theatre was nearly at capacity on Wednesday evening, and many of the remaining 11 performances currently have limited availability. Whether you’re a regular Theatre Calgary attendee or, like me, haven’t been to a performance since the 2015 A Christmas Carol, The Light In The Piazza is the perfect excuse to make a return trip.
* Thank you, again, to Theatre Calgary for the invitation to attend The Light In The Piazza. My husband, in particular, loved every minute.