The on-and off-stage tandem of director Jay Turvey and musical director Paul Sportelli, has moved into the realm of excellence that fuels the Shaw Festival’s inaugural production of The Light in the Piazza.
What’s especially pleasing—and all too rare—is that the overall tempo (with the slight exception of the Overture which seemed too-busy-by-half) of the music and actors alike, displays a visual and aural unity that makes the time evaporate in a Florentine trance as the curious tale of Clara Johnson unfolds before our very ears and eyes.
In so many ways, Clara is “the light” (Jacqueline Thair is a marvel on all fronts). The subject of the effects of acquired brain injury on a pubescent girl fuelled Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella—material that hardly seems the stuff of musical theatre back in the day. But by 2003, with so many other successful shows about the different amongst us garnering critical attention and bums in seats, the troubling back-story (Clara was never the same after being kicked in the head by a pony during her 12th birthday festivities), hardly gets a second glance from the patron side of the equation.
Within the play, however, Clara’s over-protective mom, Margaret (a spot-on characterization by Patty Jamieson) has considerable trouble broaching the uncomfortable subject not only to herself but all of those who suddenly fall into her immediate circle—notably love-at-first-light beau, Fabrizio (so good to see and hear Jeff Irving truly taking stage in the pivotal role) and his family (almost all of whom have strayed from the path of faithfulness at one time or other). Missing in Action (but marvellously available by trunk call) is Roy (the brief part smartly done by Shawn Wright), Clara’s also-protective dad and Margaret’s husband-in-name only, fleshes out the largely dysfunctional relationships, from which—comparatively, ironically—the sudden lovers seem to be the only “normal” couple in all of Italy.
The music itself (with only a few quibbles of ensemble—not surprising since the score is necessarily generated behind the performers) is remarkable for its lilt and range if not “the big song.” The chamber ensemble is especially fine with Sportelli doing his magic on a real piano and the magnificent shading’s of Erica Goodman (harp) deftly bookending the violin (Nancy Kershaw), cello (Alex Grant) and bass (George Kozub’s contributions were particularly sensitive and forward moving).
Here’s to an even larger contribution from Sportelli/Turvey in seasons to come. It’s been a fascinating journey to follow these two remarkable talents as they truly come into their own. JWR