Four years ago this month, Second Generation Theatre lifted the curtain on their new company with a premiere production in the New Phoenix Theater. It had a superb cast, an astute directorial vision, and a crafty aesthetic that spelled magic. The show was Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into The Woods,” an adult fairy tale about growing up, about children and parents, about accepting life’s setbacks and moving on. It was one of the most profound nights in the theater I’ve ever had. An impressive debut.
With their latest, “The Light in the Piazza,” now on stage at the Lancaster Opera House through June 18, the company closes its residency at that institution, its second makeshift home. They will open their own permanent space next year, in the soon-to-be-rehabbed Shea’s Seneca Theatre in South Buffalo.
Kids, they grow up so fast.
This is a perfect show to celebrate this graduation. It epitomizes the company’s ethos of telling diverse stories for all audiences, across generations. It is mature in every way.
“Piazza” tells the story of Clara, a young American woman, and Margaret, her over-protective Southern mother, as they vacation together in Italy. When Clara, ever romantic for the world, falls instantly in love with Fabrizio, a young Florentine man, Margaret’s nest begins to unravel. She knows Clara’s secret – that she is not mentally well – and perhaps not destined for a typical adult life. Much of the show dances around these nerves and hesitations, the roadblocks that keep people in the same place for the rest of their life.
Parents, they hold on so tight.
Adam Guettel’s gorgeous orchestral score is the chaotic wind that whirls its way through these pretty lives. It is a supreme piece of writing, and is often touted by the show’s passionate fans, but it is also at times difficult to absorb. While this cast handily navigates the score’s leaping intervals and brash vibratos, sometimes you just want a simple, easy tune. This is perhaps his point, though: Sometimes we should have to earn our resolutions.
There are plenty of technical components to congratulate, from Jessica Wegrzyn’s sartorial costume design, to Allan Paglia’s steady music direction (with a lush on-stage orchestra) and Paul Bostaph’s innovative set design, which thrusts out into the Opera Hall and even includes a functional fountain.
But the brightest star of this show is Debbie Pappas Sham. She does everything right. Her asides to the audience, explaining her motherly instincts, translating these international proceedings, are wonderfully managed against her dialogue; she is not merely our narrator, but our shepherd. Sham always shows up in the moment, and never wastes time. It’s a breathless performance that might knock the wind out of you. She’s not the only one.
Kelly Copps is a revelation here. Over the years, Copps has put in honest work on many local stages, mostly in musicals and mostly in the ingénue role. But Clara is much more than that; she’s not even that. Clara is easily excitable and quickly disappointed. She’s a poised statue one minute and a quivering wet noodle the next. Forget Copps’ exquisite vocal performance (it’s impossible to forget); she flexes major acting muscle here, and is a fine comedian, too. As Clara blossoms in her newfound love, Copps also expands her reach. She is no one-trick-pony.
The other standout, among many, is Anthony Lazzaro, our young, handsome, amorous Fabrizio. While Lazzaro’s good looks are nice to notice, it’s his stunning tenor voice and the fiery Italian passion with which he uses it that you’ll clamor for. You’ll be signing the dowry check at intermission.
Director Loraine O’Donnell keeps the show moving with a breezy flow. It all feels effortless. Like an afternoon wind on a sunny Florence piazza, you can feel it in the air: This is a lovely show.
“The Light in the Piazza” by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Second Generation Theatre at the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster, NY 14086
Runs through June 18, Thurs. - Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sun. at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets available at the Lancaster Opera House box office, by phone or online. Tickets: $28