PLAYBILL VIP SPOTLIGHT: NYC High School Staging of Light in the Piazza Hits Home With Tony Winner Victoria Clark
By Adam Hetrick
Adam Guettel's Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza glimmers anew in its New York City high school premiere at the Beacon School. The son of the production's original Broadway star, Tony Award-winning actress Victoria Clark, is among the students inhabiting the complex musical.
Located just blocks away from the Lincoln Center campus, where The Light in the Piazza made its Broadway premiere in 2005 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the Beacon School production of Guettel and Craig Lucas' romantic musical that explores the many phases of love and the shifting relationship between parent and child begins performances April 18.
Clark, who won a Tony Award for portraying protective mother Margaret Johnson in the Broadway production, is experiencing a full-circle moment as the parent of Beacon senior Thomas Luke Guest, who portrays Signor Naccarelli in the production.
Thomas Luke, who goes by TL, was eight years old when his mother first began performing Piazza – initially at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, which was followed by a run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. A ten-year-old by the time Piazza bowed on Broadway, he was his mother's date at the 2005 Tony Awards, where she won for Best Actress in a Musical.
"I surprisingly remember a lot [about Piazza], but it's very different watching it form the outside than experiencing it from the inside," he said. "It's so rewarding in a different way than just watching it and being an audience member. You have to give so much of yourself to the performance, and I'm relatively new to the whole musical theatre thing so this is a really amazing thing with this cast. The cast is phenomenal."
Despite hailing from a musical household, the Beacon production marks a rare stage appearance for TL, who is best known on the soccer field. "He never had time to perform because he's a star athlete," said Beacon theatre teacher Jo Ann Cimato, who also stages The Light in the Piazza at the school. TL is heading to college this fall as a soccer recruit at Williams College.
"I've never pushed music or theatre on TL even though he's really gifted, and he has one of the prettiest voices I've ever heard - and I would say that even if I wasn't his mom," Clark admits, laughing. "Theatre is in his blood, and he's been around music his whole life."
"I've always been by her side throughout every show she's done," TL said, "but it's been fun being thrust into this show – especially because the feeling you have – it's actually the creation of the show. I feel like working with the cast, and working with the director, and the choreographer, and the music director–creating your own identity for yourself within the show–is something that I've seen my mom do from an outward point. Now I'm sort of able to really understand what the process is like."
TL was lured off the soccer field after seeing Beacon's production of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening, which Cimato directed at the school in 2012. "When we did Spring Awakening he seemed frustrated. He would sit in on rehearsals. His friends were in it, and I think he was maybe a little jealous," Cimato said. "I remember him seeing Spring Awakening, and pulling me aside and saying, 'I'm in next year. I don't care what I have to do.'"
TL's theatrical lineage with Piazza didn't affect Cimato's casting for the production, but it did provide the school with a built-in resource when it came time for rehearsals. Cimato fell in love with Light in the Piazza after seeing the Lincoln Center Theater run, and despite the challenges presented by the operatic piece, she had been mulling a student production of it for several years.
"I thought it was going to be a huge challenge, and Vicki came to an event at the school last spring and said, 'I want to help you do this. How can we make this happen?,'" Cimato recalled. "She had the utmost confidence in me, our music director and our program, and that gave me the confidence to say, 'Let's do this. We're going to have the support.'"
Clark made good on her word, attending rehearsals and working with students on the music and acting scenes. The Tony winner said it would be easy for her to walk in and explain how the original production was staged, however, she felt, "It really doesn't matter, it was eight years ago. It's more important that they find the way that they want to do it."
Beacon students, many of whom hail from families with parents in the arts profession, were unfazed when Clark walked into the rehearsal room. "I think a lot of people knew who my mom was, because when there was the option of doing the show, everyone sort of looked it up, and they found out inevitably," TL said. "But the really cool thing about this process is that the kids have said, 'Your mom was in the show – that's awesome. She's really talented.' But they'd also say, 'We're really happy to be doing this with you, no matter who your mom is.' One of the things that I was really keen on, coming into this, was that I wanted to really make the show my own in a different way than my mom did – in a special way but a different way. So, they knew who she was, but we also, collectively as a group, really created this for ourselves."
"When Vicki is here, she's a mom," Cimato said. "She's not Victoria Clark Broadway star – she's TL's mom. We know her and we love her, and she's the friendliest and most-generous person. She'll wrap her arms around you from behind, and in her sweet Texas accent, say 'OK, how can I help? Can I bring cookies?'"
In addition to her baking skills, Clark has helped students navigate the challenging vocal and emotional waters of Guettel's rangy score. "One of the things we discussed was, when a composer takes you high up into the voice–because Adam writes for the voice so beautifully–there's always a reason for that," Clark said. "We had a good discussion about the men and women, as actors, emotionally supporting the passion that needs to be underneath those leaps up into the tessituras of the voice. Because otherwise, if you're not committed to that, the notes don't sound very good. Even with professionals! If you don't really know why you're singing, it doesn't sound great. They got it right away. I just introduced that as a concept, which is a pretty heady concept for high schoolers, but they were able to implement it really quickly."
"She's a very tactile teacher," Cimato noted. "She would adjust their posture, or change the angle of their head– just encourage them to breathe differently by actually having physical contact with them. It was remarkable to see the subtle changes that she could make in a gentle way would completely change the sound coming out of their body."
"Vicki's not looking to see us copy the Broadway production, she's really excited about seeing the kids create it new. She spoke to them about singing it as their own and interpreting it as their production. She has known the girl playing Margaret for many years, so their rapport is charming and they clearly inspire each other very much," Cimato added.
Clark, who was instrumental in creating the role of Margaret with the Light in the Piazza writers during numerous workshops and out-of-town engagements, praised senior Kaitlin Cullen-Verhauz, who steps into that role at Beacon. Cullen-Verhauz, who played cello on stage as Martha in Spring Awakening last season, plans to attend an acting conservatory in the fall.
"She's fantastic and not only is she making it her own, her vocal style is so very different from mine and she really makes it work," Clark said. "I hope Adam [Guettel] gets to see it. I think he'd really appreciate the way she's singing the score. She's really making it work with her instrument, and it's gorgeous."
For the record, Guettel attended a run-through of the production earlier this week and lent his support to the Beacon students and creative team.
The production, which will be TL's last at the school, marks a bittersweet passage for Clark, who in a similar way to the role of Margaret, is watching her own child leave the nest. "I can't really go into the roller coaster ride of having your own child graduate from high school," Clark confessed. "This year for me is all about letting go. It's about letting TL be the man that he is. So that's part of what I'm trying to exercise here when I come to rehearsal."
Clark has also provided TL with room to grow, not only as an individual, but also as an actor. "If I need help, I usually just go to her instead of her coming to me," TL said of interpreting the role of Signor Naccarelli. "She's really allowed me to create my own identity in the show, which has been an important part of this process for me, because I know how big a role she had in it, obviously. I also just wanted to be in a really great musical in my high school senior year. We have a great relationship over the show, and I can obviously go to her to help out for a few things. But I've really been trying to challenge myself and work my way into it as an actor."
TL and his classmates have embraced the production. "We have about 50 or 60 kids working on the project in total," he said. "A lot of times all 50 kids are either inside the studio working, backstage working on the costumes, outside the studio painting, constructing different things, or working on technical stuff. It all happens after school and everyone comes together and we really get to work."
"The whole school pitches in here, it's just really incredible," added Clark. "I can't say enough about the work the Beacon High School does and how they pull together as a community to make this happen."
In contrast to last season's Spring Awakening – the Tony-winning rock musical that speaks directly to and through teenagers – The Light in the Piazza charts a path that is more outwardly sophisticated in structure and subject matter.
"The biggest challenge has been stopping the cast from trying to sing like they're 40," Cimato said. "They all want to belt this music, and it's not a beltable score. They've all learned an impressive amount of vocal technique, control and how to bridge into their head-voices without being afraid of it. I think pop music and pop musicals teach young people to ignore the top of their vocal register. And, Piazza lives in the top of their register, so all of them have developed much more vocal range than they knew they had. In addition, the music theory they've learned in preparing this show is so advanced, that they can detect the subtle differences where chords change and how key changes and meter changes are influencing the narrative. In that regard it's been very exciting to see their eyes and hearts open."
Like Clark, who is learning to let go, Cimato sees the final moments of Piazza as a message she hopes her students will take with them. "I am so pro following your heart," Cimato said. "I love this play because it doesn't resolve with a clear and happy ending. It resolves with a call to action, or a call to hope, a call to love. When Margaret says, 'Love, if you can, oh my Clara. Love if you can and be loved.' Essentially, she says, 'You should be so lucky for someone to see you as you are, and truly love you.' I think that is a message we all need to know, and as a teacher, that's something I want for every single one of my students. Whether it's a great career, a great partner, or a great family, it's something I want for every one of my kids."
The ten-performance run of The Light in the Piazza continues through April 27. Admission is $10 to the general public, $8 for students. For ticket reservations and availability, contact the B'DAT Box Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Beacon School is located at 227 West 61st Street.
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