The Light in the Piazza

It's only fitting that the grandson of Richard Rogers would have a hand in restoring hope for the American musical. Underpinned by Adam Guettel's classy melodies, the 2005 Tony Award-winning romance, The Light in the Piazza, now running at the Buell Theatre, lives up to it's hype as a throw-back to the golden age of Broadway tuners (late 40's to early 60's), yet enhanced by a decidedly contemporary psychological honesty.

Mix flavorings from Florenze, add a pinch of Roma, drizzle with tenors and sopranos whose Italian melts the ear, and ViolÚ!—we are transported to a place where love overcomes tradition, language barriers, and even the leaden prognoses of medical science.

Based on Elizabeth Spencer's acclaimed 1958 novella, the story follows an American mother and her partially brain-injured daughter as they take in the art, architecture, and local color of Italy. To their surprise and ours, each finds a key to her life's riddle.

Director Bartlett Sher, who has been with the production since it opened at the Goodman in Chicago in 2003, has chosen a cast that fully measures up to the 1962 film and the 2005 Lincoln Center blockbuster.

Christine Andreas as Margaret Johnson
Christine Andreas as
Margaret Johnson
Photo: Joan Marcus
For Margaret Johnson, a woman of a certain age, the sojourn begins as a sentimental journey to the dreamy sites where her now loveless marriage first blossomed. Having focused her entire raison d'être on caring for her daughter, Clara—whose riding injury as a child has left her thinking like one—while she, Margaret, lives in denial of her own needs.

Underneath the picture-perfect suits and accessories from the summer of 1953, Christine Andreas' Margaret sings to us in an expansive, warm soprano, sharing her fears and hopes as she lets go of the two people that have anchored her world and opens herself to other possibilities—showing us both the vulnerability of a woman traveling on her own in a foreign land and clarity of one who listens to her own heart.

Katie Rose Clarke as Clara Johnson
Katie Rose Clarke as
Clara Johnson
Photo: Joan Marcus
Reprising her role on Broadway after a brief respite, Katie Rose Clarke strikes a resplendent chord as Clara, mixing the simplicity and confusion of a socially-challenged mind with the fresh emotions of a young woman. Clarke's clear, bright soprano and guileless portrayal of Clara are irresistible.

David Burnham as Fabrizio Naccarelli
David Burnham as
Fabrizio Naccarelli
Photo: Joan Marcus
Clara's unexpected growth from her mother's daughter to her own woman begins when her breeze-blown hat lands in the hands of Fabrizio, a handsome young tenor, who can't believe his luck. If it weren't for his misbehaving older brother, Fabrizio's infatuation and altruism toward Clara might have tilted our saccharin-warning indicators, but David Burnham finds the right touch of impudence to remind us that this is how 20-year olds actually behave. And when he sings, well, what woman could resist such a passionate, Italian tenor?

Christine Andreas as Margaret Johnson and David Ledingham as Signor Naccarelli
Christine Andreas as Margaret Johnson and
David Ledingham as Signor Naccarelli
Photo: Joan Marcus
Margaret is not the only hurdle to Fabrizio and Clara's romance, though. They must also receive approval from Fabrizio's father, Signor Naccarelli. Looking every inch the suave Florentine that makes women swoon, David Ledigham's Signor is a complete distraction for Margaret as well as a catalyst for her transformation. She, in turn, is able to get him to look on love in a new way, countervailing a clever plot twist that threatens everyone's happiness.

In adapting the book to the stage, Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss) preserves the multi-faceted perspectives on love that made the novella so popular, providing a complex and thoughtful meditation on that which "makes the world go round" to go with Guettel's lush, string-accented score. For the first time in recent memory, we're treated to a sound mix for a new musical where the orchestration does not override the vocals. The overall effect of such finely-crafted elements—from the sun-dappled Tuscan sets to the stunning costumes, luxuriant lighting, romantic convolutions, and operatic voices—is dazzling.

Denver Center Attractions presentation of The Light in the Piazza runs through April 8th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

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