Monday, June 26, 2023

REVIEW: The Light in the Piazza (Encores!)

Review of the matinee performance on Sunday, June 25, 2023 at New York City Center. Starring Ruthie Ann Miles, Anna Zavelson, Shereen Ahmed, Andrea Burns, Rodd Cyrus, James D. Gish, Michael Hayden, and Ivan Hernandez. Book by Craig Lucas. Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer. Scenic design by Clint Ramos and Miguel Urbino. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound design by Megumi Katayama. Music director Rob Berman. Choreography by Parker Esse. Direction by Chay Yew. 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission.

NOTE: This production closed following the evening performance on Sunday, June 25, 2023.

Grade: A+ 

The just-closed Encores! presentation of The Light in the Piazza is the perfect example of the joy and pain of the ethereal nature of the art form we love so much. It's that "capturing lightning in a bottle" thrill of witnessing a once in a lifetime moment, savoring the memory of it, and lamenting that it'll never happen again. The Adam Guettel - Craig Lucas musical, one of a small handful of masterpiece shows so far in the 21st century was given a miraculous revival by director Chay Yew, his creative team and a glorious company of actors. Some may disagree, but I found this minimalist (by necessity) version to be more wholly satisfying than the original.

Yew has carefully allowed the near-fantasy of the piece to walk hand-in-hand with both the melodramatic waves of emotion and the harsh intrusions of reality. It is at once otherworldly and grounded. From the dreamy opening ballet sequence (choreography by Parker Esse) to the trance-like movement of the company as they moved throughout the space, every moment was like a soothing sigh in the heat of summer. The staging was so expert and meaningful and yet unobtrusive; we all shared in a dreamlike existence for a couple of hours. The staging was aided by the scenic design of Clint Ramos and Miguel Urbino: a few well-chosen set pieces, floating statues and paintings, as well as a series of arches, instantly taking us to the breathtaking views of Italy, as well as Linda Cho's gorgeous mid-20th century costumes, vibrant and with striking silhouettes. David Weiner's wondrous use of light and shadow, full of warm, sunny shades and vibrant blues, added subliminal weight to the emotions of the moment.

Bringing this fable of mother-daughter triumphs, failures and growth to life is a stellar company of actors. How terrific it is that Encores!, given the short time between first rehearsal and final curtain, can assemble a cast of proven, beloved Broadway talent and first looks at a new generation at the same time. Where else can you find someone the caliber of Tony-nominee Michael Hayden in a bit part, or Drama Desk winner Andrea Burns in a comedic semi-supporting role. Both are outstanding, of course, the former bringing passive-aggressive conflict to the story, the latter bringing the show to a halt with shrieks of laughter from the audience and reveling in a character of remarkable strength. Then there's the quintessential Italian family headed by Burns and Ivan Hernandez, himself a sophisticated swirl of suave masculinity and debonair sensitivity. Rodd Cyrus is a riot of dimwitted youth and a smoldering sexuality that will help his character Giuseppe survive in life, and Shereen Ahmed adds fiery passion to every scene she's in as his wise-to-his-ways spouse, Franca. Together, the group is both familiar stereotypes and a family willing to grow together, all lovingly written and portrayed.

As the young love-struck Fabrizio, James D. Gish is so natural, so believable, you'd swear he really is an Italian boy with broken English. He wears his sincerity and heart on his sleeve. It is love at first sight for all involved on both sides of the proscenium. What a voice! What a presence! Here's hoping this marvelous young man gets roles he can sink his teeth into for longer than three weeks, and soon.

Everything you may have heard about Ruthie Ann Miles's bravura performance is true, and yet not praised enough. By turns fierce protector and terrified mother, she is a tower of strength, but always with the sense that she may crack like an ancient Roman statue at any moment. She sings the score brilliantly, and is very funny, too. I suspect that this a performance people will be talking about for years (even by those who didn't even see it); it is certainly on my very short list of definitive performances I've witnessed over the past four decades. I continue to marvel at the ever-expanding depth of her talents: can this really be the same human being playing the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd? And that look back - if you know you know - is rightfully already the stuff of theater legend.

Another very short list of mine is that of groundbreaking debut performances. This production just added a name to that list: Anna Zavelson. Before she even opened her mouth as she blew on to the City Center stage, I knew this force of nature is and will be a huge star. I'm talking Martin, Lansbury, McDonald level stardom. I'm getting tears in my eyes as I type this just thinking about what a privilege it was to bear witness to her work here. Every moment, every line reading, every glorious note she sang was pure perfection. It is this kind of talent that makes one really consider just why it is live theater that fulfills the artistic needs of my soul. Hyperbole? Not at all. This young actor transported me, broke my heart and healed it all at once. She is stunning.

The only flaw of this production is that it is over. Yet I have to wonder if an extended life for it might diminish the wonder. Lightning in a bottle should be kept a rare thing.

📸: J. Marcus

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