The Mysterious Heart
By R. J. Donovan
"The Light In the Piazza," now at The Colonial Theatre, is based on the 1962 film of the same name, which in turn was based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer.
Set in the fifties, it tells the story of Margaret Johnson (Christine Andreas at left), an American from North Carolina, married to a wealthy tobacco executive and touring the historic sites of Florence, Italy, with her daughter Clara.
As the two move about the city, they meet Fabrizio, a young Italian man who catches Clara’s hat when it blows from her head in the breeze. The two fall instantly in love.
However, there’s more at play here than a European summer romance. Mother is overprotective and hovering, daughter is "special" and somewhere a secret lurks in the shadows.
The truth is that the daughter, now 26, is either emotionally or developmentally challenged, having been kicked in the head by a pony at her 10th birthday party.
The fifties were a gentler time and certain issues of family privacy were not broached. While a handicap, however vague, might have been cause for hushed tones then, it's difficult to visualize that embarrassment today. Especially when it's common to see allegedly drugged out celebrities splashed across the front page of the morning newspaper, allegedly passed out in the front seat of their SUVs.
What I'm getting at is that unless you can engage the willing suspension of disbelief, the story may suffer somewhat.
I first saw "Piazza" in its original production at Lincoln Center in 2005. At the time, I felt the massive performance space at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre showed off Michael Yeargan's set magnificently.
At the same time, the enormous playing area, thrust out into the house, left the actors to roam and pace the stage if only to try and fill the space.
The touring version has been scaled down, if for no reason other than there are few theaters with the size and configuration of that at Lincoln Center. The result is a more intimate production that allows the performances to shine.
As Margaret, Christine Andreas is persuasive and protective in a way that says Mother Knows Best as she works to keep the lovers apart.
Katie Rose Clarke (at left) brings a sweet and curious innocence to Clara. And although I shy away from comparing one actor's interpretation of a role with another's, I have to say that Clarke brings a softer, more joyful quality to the role than I remembered. She is childlike rather than childish.
As Fabrizio, David Burnham is dark and dashing, struggling with his broken English to convey his flashing passion. He shines in his big solo, "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" which he sings in Italian, but with so much expression that you understand what he's saying whether you speak the language or not.
All three sing powerfully.
Also of note is Jonathan Hammond in the small role of Fabrizio’s slick brother Giuseppe, who preens and swaggers his way through the family circle.
The show's book is by Craig Lucas with music and lyrics from Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers), who received a Tony Award for the score. I found Lucas' story to offer much more humor than the first time around. Guettel's score is lush and romantic with a sophisticated operatic flavor.
As the curtain falls, Clara and Fabrizio are about to be wed. Margaret, previously torn between guarding her daughter and hoping the girl can have an full life, witnesses the beginning of Clara’s marriage as she accepts the dissolution of her own.
Can love prevail? That’s the question, as a happy ending is not necessarily assured.
With no mega-star names above the title and an absence of toe-tapping numbers, “Light In The Piazza” is in its own unique category of musicals.
To fully enjoy it, just give in to the golden glow that swirls like the summer breeze that captures Clara’s hat.
"The Light In The Piazza" is at The Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St., through June 9. For information, call 617-931-2787.
-- OnStage Boston
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