Songs From A Sweeter Place: 'Light in the Piazza' comes home

To savor the enchantment of "The Light in the Piazza," you must suspend disbelief and embrace the hopeless romanticism unfolding onstage. This musical is sophisticated yet delicate. And utterly unique in the world of musical theater.

Exquisitely directed by Bartlett Sher, the national tour of "Piazza" comes home to Seattle, where the musical had its world première at Intiman Theatre in 2003. Two years and many changes later, the production, also helmed by Sher, subsequently opened at Lincoln Center in New York City and snagged six 2005 Tonys, including best score.

With music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book by Craig Lucas, "The Light in the Piazza" is best described as a chamber musical, ideally suited to an intimate theatrical venue. The closer you are to the stage action, the more you'll enjoy this show. The touring production, however, loses some of its seductive magic when viewed from the back rows of a larger theater like the Paramount.

Set in 1953 Florence and Rome and based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, "Piazza" tells a love story, rooted somewhere between soap-opera land and fairy-tale fantasy. You might have seen the 1962 film starring Olivia De Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton IV - before he sported the perennial tan.

As the story begins, Margaret Johnson, a wealthy, overprotective North Carolina matron, and her childlike, adult daughter Clara hope to acquire a little European polish by summering in Italy, where Margaret and Clara's father spent their honeymoon.

When sweet, innocent Clara accidentally meets a dashing - and handsome, of course - young Florentine named Fabrizio Naccarelli, it's love at first sight. He's totally besotted with the lovely American, and she returns his ardor with naïve purity and passion. Margaret fails to keep the two lovers apart, so she tries to reconcile herself to the match. But all is not as it seems, and Margaret faces a momentous parental dilemma. Should she let them marry, knowing that Clara's innocent appeal is partially due to a head injury when she was 10 years old? Or continue to take care of her "special" daughter for the rest of her life?

Lucas' book grounds the Naccarelli family in Italian stereotypes, but with affection rather than mockery. Fabrizio and his family think Margaret and Clara are related to actor Van Johnson. Fabrizio's debonair father, Signor Narccarelli (David Ledingham), rules over his wife (Diana DiMarzio) and children like a proud patriarch, while Fabrizio's macho womanizing brother Giuseppe (Jonathan Hammond) deals with his spitfire wife Franca (Wendi Bergamini), who's fed up with her philandering husband.

Christine Andreas delivers a powerful and poignant portrayal as Margaret, a self-possessed woman of wit and wisdom. But after a disheartening phone conversation with her pragmatic and disapproving spouse Roy (John Procaccino), Andreas bares Margaret's heart-wrenching regrets and yearnings with her showstopping number, "Dividing Day."

The beautiful Katie Rose Clarke easily captures Clara's spontaneous enthusiasm, childish tantrums and playful curiosity. What Clara feels, Clara emotes. At the Uffizi Gallery, she can't resist touching a male statue's private parts before she laughingly runs from the museum. Separated from Fabrizio, she's inconsolable with grief. And when Clarke performs the musical's romantic title song, her radiant, angelic soprano sends our hearts soaring.

As Fabrizio, David Burnham achieves perfection. He stumbles through his English with irresistible charm, and when he sings, hearts fall at his feet. Burnham's glorious voice was made for the language of love, especially during his solo turns, "Love to Me" and "Il Mondo Era Vuoto," or his tender duets with Clarke, "Say It Somehow" and "Passeggiata."

While designer Michael Yeargan's sets suggest the classical ambience of Florence and Rome, Christopher Akerlind's lighting casts seductive shadows across this wistful canvas of love. And Catherine Zuber's costumes mirror the period with authenticity and elegance. So it's not surprising that all three designers won Tonys for their efforts.

One quibble. On opening night, the sound was a problem, occasionally distorting the stunning soprano voices with a shrill quality.

"The Light in the Piazza" paints a portrait of love using a palette of subtle shadings. Passion. Desire. Fascination. Fragility. Seduction. Longing. We journey back to a time when the world was a sweeter place. When gallantry reigned and well-dressed women wore hats and gloves and smoked cigarettes with movie-star élan.

As Guettel's lush melodies evoke poetic lyricism with their operatic overtones, Lucas' book adds touches of humor to the luminous fable. And like most fairy tales, this musical has a happy ending.

Unless you are a Broadway aficionado, you may not leave the theater humming Guettel's sumptuous score; his music might be too exotic for the hoi polloi. But thanks to a virtuoso cast and Sher's sensitive direction, you may carry away a tiny piece of romantic rapture gently lodged within your heart.

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