J-Term musical: Young love in the piazza

By EMMA AUER

“Happiness can also scar,” warns Franca, a central character in this year’s J-Term Musical, “The Light in the Piazza.” For all its intense romanticism, the musical unflinchingly presented the perils of young love and the challenges of such a relationship across a wide cultural divide. The daring performance charts the rocky love story of a vulnerable American woman, Clara, and Fabrizio, an Italian man she meets while on vacation. Complicating the story, however, is the equally turbulent relationship between Clara and her protective mother, Margaret, whose charming Southern twang hides a tragic secret.  

Director Douglas Anderson, Musical Director Carol Christensen and Orchestra Leader Mary Jane Austin harnessed the talents of an immensely skilled cast, crew and orchestra. The production, which ran from Jan. 24 to 27, also received guidance from the musical’s composer, Adam Guettel. The resulting show filled the stage with imagination, wit and grace. While the set itself was beautifully spare — its central figures an unreadable clock face and a coy, silent cherub statue — the performance was rather the opposite, dedicated to vivid displays of joy and despair, often in rapid succession. A play described by the New York Times as having “the most intensely romantic score since ‘West Side Story,’” the musical had Middlebury audience members swooning in their seats. Michael Koutelos ’20 gave a standout performance as Fabrizio, wrenching hearts as he declares his eternal love for Clara (Charlotte Katz ’21) in song after song, line after line. Over half the cast, including Koutelos, delivered their lines in Italian, drawing the audience across the Atlantic and into the heart of Italy. Student actor Antonio Antonelli ’23, a native speaker of Italian, found the experience “freeing and fun” considering the “musicality” of the language. Most impressive was the cast’s immense ability to convey truths through the universal language of emotion.

COURTESY PHOTO/MAX KRAUS
Clara (Charlotte Katz ’21) and Fabrizio (Michael Koutelos ’20) .

According to Anderson, the musical’s score is “one of the most complex ever written for the Broadway stage,” thus making it “an enormous challenge for student singers.” Still, every singer on stage, not to mention the full orchestra, rose to the challenge, each contributing a heartfelt and meaningful performance. Madison Middleton ’22 delivered an incredibly nuanced bid as Margaret, capable of conveying both the bulk of the musical’s witty quips and the anguish of a protective mother. The main conflict of the musical, in fact, arises from Margaret’s disapproval of her daughter’s relationship with Fabrizio due to some unnamed but immense worry. Eventually, Margaret reveals the source of her anxiety: as a child, Clara experienced a tragic accident that left her mentally handicapped, and, as Margaret believes, forever incapable of loving or being truly loved. To make matters worse, Fabrizio’s long-suffering sister-in-law Franca (Sofie Leathers ’22) demonstrates the dangers of marriage as she watches her adulterous husband, played wonderfully by Antonelli, betray her again and again. Despite the inauspicious signs, Fabrizio and Clara are undaunted by the warnings of Margaret and Franca, their hearts drawn ever closer until, chastened, Margaret concedes to the marriage. 

Now in its fifteenth year, the J-Term collaboration between Town Hall Theater and Middlebury College extends beyond the stage and into the far reaches of the town. “The heart of the J-Term show is the interaction between college students and people from the local community and the audience is very much a part of that,” Anderson said. Indeed, the musical resonated well with audience member Anita Borlak ’23, who remarked that it was “truly a charming love story.” Ultimately, “The Light in the Piazza” is a powerful confirmation of love and everyone’s right to experience it.