By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Lower your expectations a notch for Theatre Three's production of the 2005 hit Broadway musical The Light in the Piazza. That way you won't be too disappointed at the less-than-sumptuous staging of the romantic, near-operatic 16-song suite by composer-lyricist Adam Guettel (book by Craig Lucas). You might even be pleasantly surprised that what this production lacks technically, it almost makes up for in the vibrant singing and delicately shaded acting of the three leads: Kimberly Whalen, Wendy Welch and Curt Mega.
Whalen plays Clara, a pretty 26-year-old with the mind of a child. She and mother Margaret (Welch) are American tourists in 1953 Florence when Clara's eye is caught by 20-year-old tie salesman Fabrizio (Mega). The couple falls wildly in love at first sight. Fabrizio and his large family, who speak little English, don't detect Clara's mental handicap (the result of an accident), so when it looks as if she could marry the boy, her mother gets the jitters. Should Margaret reveal the secret and doom her daughter's romance? Or might an enhanced dowry check seal the deal once the truth is known?
In Guettel's fractured, chromatic score, older characters express their disappointments in love. Clara and Fabrizio are all about new passion. They close the first act with a soaring duet, "Say It Somehow," that has them breaching language difficulties by simply repeating variations of "you are good" and "aaah." As the gorgeous Whalen and Mega sing, kiss and peel each other's clothes, it's an "aaah" moment indeed.
Whalen, lovely as Maria in Lyric Stage's recent West Side Story, colors Clara with a bubbly naïveté and pushes her ping-y soprano (unmiked) not too insistently. As Margaret, Welch, a last-minute replacement during rehearsals, affects a chaw-ming Southern drawl. She's a fine singer, too, and if she gave the show's final solo a power surge vocally and emotionally, she'd be just about perfect. (Welch might have been tired at the end of the final preview performance reviewed; she'd already done a matinee too.)
Theatre Three's intimate in-the-round acting space is a tight squeeze for any musical, so director Michael Serrecchia and musical director Terry Dobson have settled for a diminished version of Piazza that bumps the edges of the theater's limited real estate. They've had to downsize the orchestra, eliminating the string section that gave such a lush lilt to the New York production. The mushy sound of a synthesized keyboard in a seven-piece offstage combo is a poor substitute.
And once again—some might say, as usual—Theatre Three skimps on design elements and creates needless visual distractions. Costumer Michael Robinson's vintage-look, full-skirted dresses sport saggy, uneven hems, even on Clara's bridal gown. Suits haven't been tailored. Wigs, including Welch's, look mangy. Shoes aren't shined. And on Act 1's opening set (designed by David Walsh), the centerpiece of the "piazza" is a chalky papier-mâché statue that bears a startling resemblance to Steve Buscemi. Naked. Non bravo.
Dallas boasts many pleasant, attractive venues in which to experience live theater. The Hub is not one of them. Groaningly uncomfy for audience and actors—spine-cracking seats and the stench of something sour and rotting in the air—this dank Canton Street crypt exists as a no-frills rent-a-space for anyone who can cough up the cash to produce something there. It's a dreary, uninviting place for mounting Coronado, a two-act play by mystery novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone).
But that is what actor-director Harry Reinwald has tried with his Essential Stage company. In a nicer setting, with closer attention paid to sound and scenic design, lighting, costumes and casting, Coronado might have come together as more than a shaggy vanity project. Only vivid performances by half of the eight-member ensemble manage to brighten Reinwald's dull direction and offset the dreary look of the show.
The play follows three time-shifting stories that encircle eight characters. In a bar, a psychiatrist (Dan States) and the patient (Christie Courville) he's just bedded argue about continuing both treatment and affair. A shifty father (Nye Cooper) and his ex-con son (Matt Savins) discuss a misplaced diamond. An adulterous couple (Amanda Frost, Chase DeMoss) plot the murder of the woman's husband (Tony Martin), who's also the lover's boss. Only in the second act does Lehane reveal clues to the true identities of all involved. Some characters could be older or younger versions of others, a nice twist on the whodunit format.
Working against the swirling momentum of the well-crafted mystery, director Reinwald slows the pace, stretching a 90-minute script to the two-hour point. The whole production feels like it's wearing lead shoes. Putting black furniture on a bare black box space, then dressing the cast in blacks and grays doesn't create a noir effect; it's just energy-sucking. (The pace might improve if audience members outnumbered actors, which unfortunately they didn't at the weekend performance reviewed.)
The men in the cast do some good work, particularly Cooper, Martin, Savins and States, all of whom click into the tense, conversational acting style the play begs for. The women, however, never connect with the words they're saying. Courville and Frost are self-conscious, hysterical and amateurishly actor-y in that bouncy-chested, shiny-haired way some actresses have when they think they can make it on looks alone.
There's nothing wrong with doing low-budget theater, but it can and should be done better than Coronado.
Nobody goes to The Pocket Sandwich Theater to see great art. You pay to take part in a melee, during which a play might accidentally break out. These nights, the frenzy of popcorn-throwing, heckling and general mayhem is interrupted only occasionally by Sweeney Todd: Fiend of Fleet Street, a fairly funny melodrama by Pocket founder Joe Dickinson, starring actors who should get hazard pay for putting up with the unruly, beer-swilling mobs out front.
Like a Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups, Pocket, Dallas' only for-profit playhouse, encourages its audience to be part of the "entertainment." Free popcorn comes with the price of admish, and it's for hurling at the stage, not chomping as a snack. The performers, bless their hearts, give it their all—at least for the first act. After that, it hardly matters if they're acting or reciting grocery lists. As long as someone's onstage, it's an excuse for the groundlings to fling corn.
Hacked into three short acts with two overlong breaks (for the selling of more comestibles by servers in wench costumes), the show is still over in two hours, which seems reasonable. Anyone who bothers to pay attention will see sharp comic turns by Trista Wyly, as meat-pie maker Mrs. Lovett, and Daniel Baugh as Sweeney Todd, the murderous London barber who supplies the victims who turn up in Lovett's recipes.
The play's not really the thing packing them in at the Pocket (no lie, the place is always sold out). It's sing-alongs, crass jokes, cheap pitchers of suds and the chance to misbehave in public. But those poor actors—they don't even get tips. And they must spend hours after each show picking stale kernels out of their hair.
Light in the Piazza
Sweeney Todd: Fiend of Fleet Street