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Sham, Copps, and music ensemble stunning in Second Generation Theatre’s LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA

THE BASICS:  LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, a musical by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, presented by Second Generation Theatre Companydirected by Loraine O’Donnell, starring Debbie Pappas Sham, Kelly Copps, Anthony Lazzaro, Marc Sacco, Rebecca Runge, Katy Miner, Matt Witten, Steve Jakiel, Leah Berst, Lucas DeNies, Christopher Andreana, and Melissa Leventhal continues, but only through next Sunday, June 18, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 at the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Avenue, Lancaster. (683-1776). Runtime about 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission. Soda pop and snacks, 50-50 raffle, basket raffles. Ample parking behind; elevator available in rear of building.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  It’s the 1950s, and with husband Roy (Steve Jakiel) caught up in his career back in the U.S., Margaret Johnson (Debbie Pappas Sham), a Southern lady of refined tastes, takes her daughter, Clara (Kelly Copps), to Italy on vacation. When handsome young Fabrizio Naccarelli (Anthony Lazzaro) and sweet Clara first see each other, we have a love story, but with complications.

Debbie Pappas Sham stars as Margaret Johnson | Photo by Michael Walline

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is not your typical in-your-face “show-biz” musical but over the years it has certainly hit a chord with both reviewers and audiences, earning multiple 2005 Tony nominations and awards, including Best Original Score. You may have seen it on PBS in 2006, or in Toronto in 2010, or at The Shaw Festival in 2013. The plot, by the way, is identical to the 1962 movie which starred Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, and George Hamilton as mother, Clara, and Fabrizio. And, for you readers, it began as a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, published in the June 18, 1960 issue of The New Yorker magazine, back when that magazine published full length books.

Nobody seems to be able to describe the score, myself included, but from the world of Broadway musicals I would say that it’s more Sondheim than anything else, and from the world of classical music, I was reminded of Stravinsky’s neoromantic sound, particularly his “Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.” And from the world of opera it’s what we’d call a “chamber opera” meaning more intimate and less glitzy.

Now, I have been attending chamber music concerts for over 50 years and have been announcing classical music on the radio for almost 20 of them, so I hope that I have some credibility when discussing small ensembles. I say that this is the best small ensemble pit orchestra I’ve ever heard. Ever. What makes that more surprising is that there is only one player to a part, leaving every note exposed. The actual players, by the way, are also exposed as they sit on the main stage, while most of the action takes place on a thrust stage (a Paul Bostaph signature) apparently created just for this performance.

“They say the eyes are the window of the soul, and Clara’s soul, witnessed through Copps’ eyes, experiences the most transcendent joy, profound sadness, terror, anger, love, and elation in quick succession.”

Led by Allan Paglia from the keyboard, the sextet of musicians also includes Larry J. Albert, guitar; Beth Anne Breneman, harp; Jenna Noreck, violin; Davie Siegfried, bass; and Liz Staley, cello. It was a rich, robust, perfectly intonated, shimmering, Kleinhans-worthy sound.

Another reason that this is not your typical in-your-face musical is that there is not one, but two leading ladies, each with her own dramatic arc. And both leading ladies are wonderfully, effectively, and charmingly directed by Loraine O’Donnell. Ms. O’Donnell is no stranger to “show biz” musicals, having recently starred in a production of GYPSY (“Curtain up! Light the lights! We’ve got nothing to hit but the heights”) but here she lets the story of the two women gently evolve.

“…this is the best small ensemble pit orchestra I’ve ever heard. Ever.”

There is mom, Mrs. Johnson, the epitome of the appearance-conscious upper class Southern lady who has, over the years, slowly, but not entirely, become aware that her marriage is not all that wonderful while she has carefully shielded her daughter from the world. Now, she is ready to let some things go. Debbie Pappas Sham, with a stunning 1950s wardrobe by Jessica Wegrzyn, plays her perfectly. Yes, this is the same Debbie Pappas Sham who was just nominated for two (!) Artie Awards: “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play” A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE as well as “Outstanding Actress in a Musical” TENDERLY: THE ROSEMARY CLOONEY STORY.

Why deny yourself the chance to see some real star power?

The other leading lady is Clara, played by Kelly Copps, whose face reflects one of the most emotionally labile performances you will ever see. They say the eyes are the window of the soul, and Clara’s soul, witnessed through Copps’ eyes, experiences the most transcendent joy, profound sadness, terror, anger, love, and elation in quick succession. And we get to see it all happen before our eyes.

When you go, there might be some language difficulty. Fabrizio’s big aria is in Italian, as are several other dialog moments, so be ready for that. But when the tenor is young Anthony Lazzaro, he could be singing anything and it would sound great. 

So, for some damn fine acting and music, check your GPS, and take the 25-minute drive out to Lancaster.

Lead image: Photo by Michael Walline | Kelly Copps and Anthony Lazzaro

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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