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Theatre Review (LA): The Light in the Piazza at The El Portal Theatre

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The Light in The Piazza by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel is one of my favorite musicals. I have seen it four times (Lincoln Center, Ahmanson, P.B.S., and Covina). I have now added a fifth to my list, a lovely production at the El Portal; but this time in show is presented more like a chamber musical.

At times I missed the elaborate sets from Lincoln Center, but designer Christopher Scott Murillo has done a terrific job suggesting the Florence locale by the use of a couple of columns, a table and chairs, a bench, and a statue of David. Covina’s production, like this one, was in a small 99-seat theatre, but that was a proscenium stage; this production is set amidst the audience in a three-quarters round space.

The orchestra is minimal but still effective, although sometimes I felt the music and the singers weren’t as well served without the lush arrangements; the performers are asked to sing a difficult opera-like score without the support of an orchestra. The cast did an admirable job, however.

The production is being put on by YMTA Productions, headed by Blake McIver Ewing, who also plays Fabrizio Naccarelli, a role which he acquits admirably. It seems he has also enlisted other family members and friends to get this very difficult musical on. But don’t get the impression that this is some fly-by-night vanity production because it is fully professional and succeeds very well.

The casting has a lot to do with the show’s success. Stephanie Wall plays the pivotal role of Clara. I had seen her in Marvelous Wonderettes and she brings her simplicity and wonderful singing voice to these proceedings as well. Fabrizio’s family are very good, all speaking Italian and generally being an authentic familial entity. Jonathan Kruger makes a sympathetic and intelligent father. Dena Drotar is the mother and does a very good job. Fabrizio’s brother and his wife are played to the hilt by Darius Rose and Christine M. Catsuto respectively. Gregory Franklin does a nice turn as Clara’s workaholic father. Mark Gomez is just fine as the Priest.

Mary Donnelly Haskell, a veteran of Los Angeles theatre and television, plays Clara’s mother. Ms Haskell is truly marvelous in the role, bringing strength, compassion, and lots of humor into a compelling performance that helps make this a memorable evening. The Light in The Piazza plays at The El Portal Theatre until July 26th.

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