Italian Sojourn Does Stage Door Well

The Stage Door Theatre’s current production of â”Light in the Piazza” finds the Coral Springs playhouse stepping out of its comfort zone of Neil Simon comedies and dusty Broadway antiques – and it’s all the better for it.

Set in Florence in 1953 and based on an old novella, “Light in the Piazza” scored six Tonys in 2005, despite -or because – it didn’t succumb to the predictable formulas of Broadway musicals. The songs are not infectious

and poppy; rather, they have the baroque complexity of opera. Unlike most shows set in foreign countries, in which all the local characters sing in an accented English,”Light in the Piazza” has a few songs performed entirely in Italian, often without translations. And as a romance, the characters’ chemistry is rapturous, sensuous and, for Stage Door, surprisingly fleshy.

The story centers on a blossoming romance between Clara Johnson (Lara Hayhurst), a bubbly young American blonde, and Fabrizio Naccarelli (Dylan Thompson), the kind Florentine suitor she encounters on a brief Italian holiday with her mother Margaret (Gabrielle Visser). Margaret is unusually overprotective of her daughter; we get the impression that her sheltering and smothering is not limited to dalliances with men abroad. Eventually, we come to understand her justification: Clara suffered a freak accident on her 12thbirthday, and her mental and emotional faculties have not evolved since.

Clara’s condition mostly manifests itself in petulant, childish outbursts, and Stage Door’s technical team does a wonderful job of visualizing her disorder. Lost in Florence while trying to meet Fabrizio for a midnight rendezvous, Clara loses control, and so does the set design: The shifting panels of Renaissance art that served as the story’s backdrop break apart, come together and divide themselves again, reflecting Clara’s fractured mental state and her physical disconnection. In general, this show is a technical marvel, especially considering its limited budget. Andrew Meyers’ expressive lighting design dazzles throughout. The only deficiencies arise from the audio system; watch out for insistent beeps and fuzzy static, and some of the English-language lyrics are not always clear.

The supporting cast is a hit-and-miss ensemble. The hits really soar, including Natalie Ramirez as the jaded girlfriend to Fabrizio’s brother, while the misses really sink, particularly Bruce Rebold, who turns Fabrizio’s stern father into a cartoon stereotype from an Italian farce – everything Ramirez isn’t.

Hayhurst and Thompson are both fine as the young paramours, but Visser runs away with the show, thanks to her incredible pipes and the deep reservoirs of melancholy she imbues her character. Suffering through what we come to realize is a loveless marriage to a relative monster, Visser humanizes an initially unlikable character. It’s her lot in life, not Clara’s, that makes for the story’s real tragedy.

“Light in the Piazza” is at the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, Margate, through April 10. Tickets are $38. Call 954/344-7765 or visitwww.stagedoortheatre.com.