PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Light in the Piazza: Frenzy in Firenze

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Light in the Piazza: Frenzy in Firenze
Roma wasn't built in a day, and Firenze took time, too—three years of concentrated stagecraft before Elizabeth Spencer's 1959 novella, The Light in the Piazza, found a secure place April 18 on the large, constantly swirling stage of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont.
Barlett Sher; Adam Guettel; Victoria Clark; Kelli O'Hara; Sarah Uriate Berry; Michael Berresse; Matthew Morrison; Patti Cohenour; Matthew Carnahan & Helen Hunt; Debbie & Beau Gravitte; Marc Shaiman & Scott Whitman
Barlett Sher; Adam Guettel; Victoria Clark; Kelli O'Hara; Sarah Uriate Berry; Michael Berresse; Matthew Morrison; Patti Cohenour; Matthew Carnahan & Helen Hunt; Debbie & Beau Gravitte; Marc Shaiman & Scott Whitman Photo by Aubrey Reuben

First-nighters were obviously—what's the Italian phrase?—"swept away." The standing ovation started instantly, and the applause persisted long after the cast of 18 had taken their final bows. It was only stilled when the triumphant triumvirate in charge—director Bartlett Sher, composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas—acceded to the cheers, climbed on to the stage and took their first Broadway-musical bows ever.

Lucas has had a revival of Reckless and the Off-Broadway transfer of Prelude to a Kiss done on Broadway before, but never before a musical. Refreshingly, it is a character musical, pitched from the unexpected perspective of a fluttery, caring North Carolina matron, Margaret Johnson, in an amorous culture-clash with an Italian clan over her beautiful, but mildly retarded, daughter. Object: matrimony.

The only two performers who have been with the show from its very first reading—Victoria Clark and Kelli O'Hara—work some very affecting wonders with this mother-daughter act, the stuff that Tonys are made of (although one of Clark's agents has forbidden the use of the T-word around her—"too much pressure").

There's more than the touch of a steel magnolia about Margaret Johnson, and Clark upholds the cause of Southern sisterhood with dignity, honor and good humor. "People who have spent any amount of time with me at all know how well in synch I am with this character," she says. "My story is so linked up with Margaret in many different ways."

A luscious blonde, O'Hara went through a wig and role change since Square One. Originally, she was cast as the Italian sister-in-law instead of the Winston-Salem innocent about to enter that family. "It has been amazingly challenging—and fun—to play two parts in one show," she admitted. "I started playing Franca, and, over time, I was just asked to audition for Clara. I knew the music well, obviously, since I had been in the process, and it just worked out that way. The most wonderful girl in the world was playing it before, and now she is winning accolades for the Spelling Bee musical—Celia Keen-Bolger." In the final-inning reshuffling, Sarah Uriarte Berry happily inherited the role of the tempestuous Italian sister-in-law. It looks like the brass ring to her, especially considering where she's coming from—Ingenueville: "Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Eponine in Les Miserables, all those teenage roles. It's high time that I played a grown-up and such a joy. I like the fact this character is a woman. Not a girl. Not an ingenue. A woman. And she is not sweet. At all. She has got fire, but she has a good heart and she loves her husband."

The husband in question is played by Michael Berresse, last seen on Broadway as the highly acrobatic, Tony-nominated secondary lead in Kiss Me Kate. It's a relatively small role here and mostly in Italian, but he's physical on top of it—thanks, he said, to Joseph Siravo, who plays a priest in the show. Better than praying over him, Siravo "has translated all of my English ad-libs into Italian for me and has given me a lot of subtle Italian gestures. As an opening-night gift from the assistant director, I got a book of Italian gestures. It, literally, is like a dictionary—but it's only hand gestures. I flipped through it at intermission. It was, like, `Hey, I'm already using 12 of these in the show!'"

Matthew Morrison plays Berresse's bro and the Romeo of the show who sets his cap for the curiously child-like Clara. He, too, did his Italian homework. "I speak Spanish, and it's another romance language so it was kinda easy to pick up." A good thing, that—because he has a full-hearted aria to do in the first act, all of it in Italian. "I just love falling in love every night as an Italian," Morrison admits. "It's not like Americans, who are very heady and love in their head. Italians are very grounded. It's a real, deep love."

The two young stage lovers had a flinty exchange when they passed each other doing interviews after the show. "You look hot," Morrison said admiringly. "You look hot, too," she shot back, returning the serve. They can use all of that, of course, in their work.

Heading the Italian household are Patti Cohenour and Mark Harelik (who, like Clark, is a Texan, but, with a mustache, might well be Giancarlo Giannini); both have been performing these parts for two-and-a half years, from the world premiere at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle to another tryout at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and, quite fittingly, huge contingents from both companies came in for the New York opening.

"Adam Guettel is the most tremendous talent," Cohenour declared. "He writes for the voice, he writes with the character in mind, he moves the story forward. This show raises the bar for musical theatre. I truly believe that. The minute we finished the reading here, I told Bart Sher, "It's a jewel. It is a diamond nestled in a velvet box wrapped in Tiffany ribbon.' I felt it from the beginning. It's pristine. I knew that. You know it in your heart."

Harelik is not of the people who gets to share Guettel's musical wealth. "My character is not a principal singer," he said, "but I certainly enjoy living in the music. The whole world is defined by the sound of the music, and that music is the sound of love."

Read like a man who has been to Florence lately—and not just for research. "My wife and I honeymooned in Florence last October," he admitted. (She did not take her skates: Mrs. Harelik is that abrasive little brat of Urinetown, Little Sally—Tony-nominated Spencer Kayden—and Harelik was overheard telling friends that a baby was on the way.)

All the lights in Tavern on the Green were turned on for The Light in the Piazza, and the place was pretty much bathed in starlight—Oscar winner Helen Hunt with novelist Matthew Carnahan, Tony winners John Lithgow, Dick Latessa, Debbie Gravitte (whose hubby, Beau Gravitte, played Clark's estranged spouse), Michael Feinstein, Bob Saget, Sara Gettelfinger, Byron Jennings and Caroline McCormack, director Nicholas Martin, The Times' Frank Rich and Alex Witchell, Patricia Clarkson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, and Brooks Ashmanskas.

The belle of the ball, if there was one, was Mary Rodgers, mother of the composer and daughter of Richard Rodgers, eyes shining and dancing and sometimes glistening, obviously happy a great musical tradition was continuing for yet another generation.

Guettel wasn't about to pinpoint his next project, just that "I'm looking, I'm looking." He said he was drawn to The Light in the Piazza because "it swells the heart"—and, it has to be said, he musically responded accordingly. His favorite song is the one he recently added to the score, the aforementioned all-Italian aria. He wrote the lyric, then passed it along for translation to a favorite singer of his, Judy Blazer, a very expert Italian speaker.

Assuring a pretty glorious listen, Guettel worked on the orchestrations himself with Ted Sperling and Bruce Coughlin. Which made sense to Hairspray's Marc Shaiman: "I got to composing by way of orchestrating so that's second nature for me—I'm sure to him also. It's all one and the same. I don't differentiate. The result here was really rapturous."

He and his life and writing partner, Scott Wittman, are making headway on musicalizing Catch Me If You Can. "We've talked about it more than we've actually written it, but we are a little more than halfway done now, and we'll have it finished in a few more months," he promised. "We're also writing a show for Martin Short that will be on Broadway next year—a 'one-man show with cast.' What do you call a one-man show that has four people helping out? They play the other million characters. Marty can only play a billion characters. We need others to help out. It's called If I'd Saved, I Wouldn't Be Here: Martin Short on Broadway. Anyone who likes him will be a kid in a candy store."

Michael Cumpsty turned out to cheer on Clark, who musically coached him through 42nd Street. He just finished giving 173 performances at the office (the Brooks Atkinson) in Democracy and will go directly in rehearsal for The Constant Wife, which bows in June at American Airlines Theatre. "About three years ago," he said, "I just happened to stumble into a production of The Constant Wife on the West End in London, knowing nothing about it, and thought it was really good—like so good that you wonder why people don't revive it all the time." He plays Kate Burton's less-than-constant husband.

Also in Clark's camp were two old Titanic shipmates, William Youmans and Martin Moran. The latter is about to start a book and play tour of his Off-Broadway opus, The Tricky Part. The pub date is June 9, and he's writing a one-act for the McCarter. Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald was on the arm of her Passion director, Lonny Price. There's more where that came from, said Price: "I'm directing Audra, Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris again, in August, at Ravinia in Anyone Can Whistle. I just really love to work with them. They're my own personal rep company."

Musical director Sperling's next project will be just director, of a Michael John LaChiusa musical he staged up at Williamstown last summer. Then it was called R shoman; now it is called See What I Wanna See, and it will be one of the first offerings at The Public this fall.

"It's actually based on several short stories, one of which is the famous Rashomon story," he said. "That one is set on the eve of the premiere of the movie, in 1953, and then the second act is another story which is contemporary. Both take place in Central Park." Michael Benjamin Washington put in for Maid's Day Off (from La Cage aux Folles) so he could attend Morrison's opening night. "He was at my opening, and I was at his for this," he said. "We went to NYU together and have been best friends ever since. That voice I heard in that little vocal-performance room eight years ago in college, people are now thrilling to. This play was a beginning. There'll be more."

Not only was Seattle and Chicago well represented at the opening, so was North Carolina. Author Spencer came in from Chapel Hill, and Clark's mom, Lorraine Pickering, arrived from neighboring Durham. Also in the Carolina contingent was journalist Doug Sturdivant, who happened to catch a tryout of Gore Vidal's new play about Sherman's march through Georgia and how it impacted on one family in particular. Some name-brand players were flown in to give it a run-through—Charles Durning, Richard Easton, Michael Leanred, Isabel Keating and Christopher Noth. The best, said Sturdivant, was Easton, who "in a minor part, blew everybody else off the stage!"

The lady who started the Light in the first place, Spencer, was blissed out about the musical made of her novella—and that Clark got to play her heroine. "I've known Vicki for a while," she said, "and she's a real Southern lady." Obviously, it takes one to know one.

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