The Jefferson Performing Arts Society is kicking off the new year in their new facility by reprising an old favorite, “The Light in the Piazza.” The show was a big hit for JPAS in 2012, winning five Big Easy Awards, including best musical, despite only running for a single weekend at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall. When the new multi-million dollar Jefferson Performing Arts Center opened last year, JPAS executive and artistic director Dennis Assaf knew he wanted to include an encore production of the show in the 2015-16 season.
“It was the theater, in essence, that was the catalyst to bring ‘The Light in the Piazza’ back,” said Assaf. “The beautiful new theater affords us the greatest opportunity to make an artistic production more beautiful and more successful.”
This year’s production, running Jan. 22-31, features much of the same cast and crew as the 2012 production — including director Butch Caire, mother-daughter duo Nancy Assaf and Ariel Assaf (Dennis’ wife and daughter), and Dennis Assaf conducting the orchestra — but Assaf says the new facility will enhance the experience for performers and audiences alike.
“It’s such a fun place to work,” said Assaf. “The orchestra pit sounds good, it’s spacious. It’s got great sight lines for the audience.”
“The Light in the Piazza” premiered on Broadway in 2005, with a book by Craig Lucas and sophisticated, opera-like music and lyrics by Adam Guettel.
Adapted from a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the show centers on Margaret and Clara Johnson (Nancy and Ariel Assaf), a mother and daughter from North Carolina touring Italy in the 1950s. When Clara falls a young Italian man, Fabrizio (Rich Arnold, reprising his award-wining role from 2012), Margaret objects to the whirlwind romance, eventually revealing a secret mental illness that threatens to tear the family apart.
For the Assafs, “Light in the Piazza” is very much a family affair. In fact, one of the play’s biggest inspirations is a family member who’s not on stage, Ariel’s sister Stephanie, who was born with special needs.
“It’s a very realistic portrayal of real life with a handicapped person,” said Nancy Assaf. “I think this play touches on all the different emotions that you experience with a having a child like this.”
Ariel Assaf won a Big Easy Award for her supporting role in the 2012 production. “I’ve done several shows with my family, but never where my mother was playing my mother, so to be able to add our chemistry, the way we communicate, and still pull from Stephanie and her mannerisms, it just makes it more real for me,” said Ariel Assaf.
Nancy Assaf said the opportunity to revisit the role of Margaret gives her a chance to dig deeper into the character, examining the steady, maternal strength that holds her family together.
“Because this is my last time doing it, I want to portray more of the emotions that a woman feels, a woman who has a special child, so that’s my goal this time: to give more than I gave the last time. I want to bring the woman out in her a little more this time.”