Lost in translation

Posted on 30 Jan 2008 at 5:23pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones

Where’s the woozy romanticism in Theatre Three’s ‘Light in the Piazza’?


A handsome Italian (Curt Mega, left) romances a mentally challenged girl (Kimberly Whalen, far right) to the dismay of her over-protective mother (Wendy Welch) in T3′s ‘The Light in the Piazza.’ – LINDA HARRISON

If you didn’t know any better, the concept of "The Light in the Piazza" sounds like a screwball comedy: A mentally slow American meets a handsome Italian while visiting Florence, and because neither speaks the others’ language well, he doesn’t seem to notice that she has the mind of a child.

Funny, right? We all sound like morons when trying communicate in a foreign language, so how do you tell the real morons from the rest of us?

But "Piazza" isn’t a comedy, which means this conceit only works if the production is woozily romantic — a gorgeous fever-dream where true love makes you weak in the knees. And in Theatre Three’s production, that just doesn’t happen.

No one in the cast seems particularly at fault. Even Wendy Welch, a last-minute replacement as the the girl’s overprotective mother, handles her part confidently; Bradley Campbell, as the father of the boy, doffs his Italian dialogue like a native. No cast member is less than serviceable: Kimberly Whalen has a beautiful voice as the girl, and Curt Mega as her paramour is a dreamboat. But where is the giddy romanticism wafting through the air, carrying us along with it?

The performance of composer-lyricist Adam Guettel is to blame. Guettel’s music is "modern" in the most infuriating sense, eschewing traditional melodies in favor of complex structures. At least in the original Broadway version the score floated lightly; here, Guettel’s strings-heavy compositions are performed completely without any string instruments, and it feels cumbersome and clunky. The singers strain to hit their notes, making "Light in the Piazza" the most studied and unspontaneous romance imaginable.

Author Craig Lucas’ intelligent, deeper-than-most-musicals script tries to create some dramatic heft, but he never breaks it free from the literary moorings in the novella upon which it’s based. Aspirations aside, it’s all a big snooze, and whatever the musical wants to be is, alas, lost in translation.

At least the dialogue in "Piazza" isn’t as stilted as in "The Mummy’s Claw," finishing up this weekend at Dallas Children’s Theater. This broad mystery-fantasy about Egyptology, curses and inheritance is fully twice as long as it needs to be; playwright Mark Chandler never says something once when four or five rehashing can stretch it out. The plot is at once needlessly complex (the mystery part doesn’t even emerge until Act 2) and painfully obvious.

But then there’s Randel Wright’s remarkably kinetic set, a beautifully appointed museum piece that crumbles before our eyes during the Act 1 finale. The stagecraft of the quaking structure alone is enough to get the kiddies and their parents jazzed up — and maybe interested in seeing some legitimate mummy art at the DMA.

"The Mummy’s Claw," Rosewood Center for Family Arts, 5938 Skillman St. Final weekend. Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 1:30 p.m. $12–$22. 214-740-0051.

"The Light in the Piazza," Theatre Three, in the Quadrangle. Through Nov. 23. Thursdays and Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m., Fridays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. $10–$40. 214-871-3300.




LEGENDARY PHOTOGRAPHER DIES

Andy Hanson, pictured, shot photos for "The Light in the Piazza" before Wendy Welch took over a lead role, but before he had time to reshoot with the new cast, he died. So, as far as anyone can tell, those T3 photos are the final one he took in his storied career.

It’s appropriate that Hanson, 76, would end his work at Theatre Three. He shot the opening night of the theater’s first production in 1961, just a year after he began working at the Dallas Times-Herald.

I was lucky enough to spend the last few years as a friend of Andy, pumping him for stories from "the old days" (he delighted in looking at his old pictures and pointing out all the gay people in them for me). Lots of people lived in Dallas during the tumult of the last 50 years, but Andy was more than a witness: He was a chronicler of it all. A recent exhibit of his photos at Fair Park Music Hall stood as a silent testament to the iconic people Andy photographed over the years — and always with a gentlemanly air.

Andy was the last of a breed, never going digital but continuing to shoot on 35mm film until the end — meaning you always got hard copies of his snapshots, often with a border that read, "Andy Hanson shot this." I’ll miss seeing that, but not half as much as I’ll miss seeing Andy, the lanky, white-haired man in back who always got his shot.

— Arnold Wayne Jones



These articles appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 31, 2008.

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