Theater in a new 'Light' at The Empty Space

·3 min read

Jan. 19—Don't let the Italian dialogue and operatic-style music intimidate you. "The Light in the Piazza," opening this weekend at The Empty Space, speaks the international language of love.

Director Sheila McClure said she's been in love with the musical since seeing it at the Lincoln Center in New York in 2005.

She said she forced her husband, David Lollar, to go with some reluctance on his part due to the more operatic style of the musical.

McClure recalled, "Afterward, he said, 'It's really amazing and I'm dumb.'"

He's such a fan of the musical, he's in the cast as Signor Naccarelli, whose son Fabrizio (Nick Ono) falls in love with Clara Johnson (Tessa Ogles), a young American touring Italy with her mother, Margaret (Bethany Lahammer).

Parts of the show are in Italian, reflecting the Johnsons' experience as tourists in a country where they don't speak the language, but McClure said it's not difficult to follow what is happening.

The show has many fabulous relationships, all in different seasons of love, from the spring of new love for Clara and Fabrizio to the winter of the marriage between Margaret and Roy (Steve Evans), who have struggled on how to handle Clara, whose brain injury at age 12 has made her life more challenging.

And although there's plenty of romance and a strong ensemble — that also includes Sherna Armstrong, Eric Lempinen and Arian Garcia as the rest of the Naccarelli family — McClure said "Piazza" is really about Margaret and her discovery to learn what Clara is capable of doing.

"It's the story of a parent watching a child going beyond what she can do."

That resonated for the mom and longtime teacher whose son, Ciaran, struggled in the second grade before being diagnosed with ADHD.

"His brain works differently. ... I saw it as a mom watching her child beat the odds, defy what other people said they could do."

(Teenager Ciaran, whose theatrical debut was in "The Full Monty" at The Empty Space in September, appears in this show's ensemble, making it a complete family affair for McClure.)

McClure credits Lahammer with delivering a stellar performance.

"That was the role I was most worried about," the director said. "I didn't know if I could see anybody else in Bakersfield playing her. For vocal chops, it's really hard. Acting chops — it's really a roller coaster."

"The way this role is written and how Bethany plays it for me, she just knocks it out of the park every night."

Ogles also does well with her challenging role, McClure said.

"The role of Clara is tough too. She does seem childlike sometimes but she is also coming into her own, discovering who she is as a woman."

The entire cast had their work cut out for them, either speaking Italian or developing a North Carolina accent. McClure credits her dialect coaches — Mendy McMasters, a theater professor at Cal State Bakersfield, and Michael Crider, who is also the show's vocal director — with helping it all come together.

"Thank God he has a background in opera," McClure said of Crider and his ability to work through the numbers including McClure's favorites "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" and "Aiutami."

"People are going to be blown away by their voices."

The director said she hopes people aren't intimidated by the music or the language and can just come out for an evening of great performances.

"It is funny and the most beautiful piece of theater I've ever seen, and I go to a lot of theater."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.