TheatreWorks’ Luminous “The Light in the Piazza”

Clara meets Fabrizio

Clara (Whitney Bashor) and Fabrizio (Constantine Germanacos) meet in TheatreWorks' THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. (Photo: Mark Kitaoka)

The Light in the Piazza, a great American musical, features perhaps the best book since Fiddler on the Roof, and a score so lush and ravishing, so full of feeling, that it gives the intimate, finely drawn story the sweep of an epic. Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of Mary Rodgers, composed and orchestrated the magnificent music, and playwright Craig Lucas adapted the story from Elizabeth Spencer’s lovely 1960 novella.

Not a lot happens in Piazza, yet a profound change is wrought in its protagonist. Margaret Johnson, and her strangely child-like 26-year-old daughter Clara are travelling in Florence, revisiting the scene of Margaret’s honeymoon, when Clara meets a young Florentine, Fabrizio Naccarelli, and the two are immediately attracted. Initially Margaret opposes and impedes the relationship, but as she contemplates her own loveless marriage (husband Ray is back home tending to his work), she debates how much of Clara’s history she should reveal to Fabrizio and his family, and whether she has the right to deny her daughter romantic and sexual love.

Lucas’s adaptation has Margaret interrupt the action from time to time to share her thoughts directly with the audience, and she’s revealed to be warm, humorous, regretful, and very lonely. In a masterful stroke, Lucas resets a kiss that happens between Margaret and Fabrizio’s father. In Spencer’s original, Margaret allows the kiss with a very specific goal in mind. In Lucas’s script, the kiss happens after that goal has been achieved, with the result that the moment becomes infinitely more complicated and infinitely sadder. The kiss gives Margaret a glimpse of what she’s lost in her own life, what she’s helping her daughter to achieve in her life. Margaret’s own yearnings peek through her carefully built reserve, and to the audience, it’s overwhelming.

The play isn’t without faults, mostly stemming from Guettel’s lyrics. (I heard Guettel speak several years ago and he readily admits that lyric writing is the weakest part of his craft.) In “The Beauty Is,” Clara regards a sculpture of a male nude and sings “These are very popular in Italy./ It’s the land of naked marble boys./ Something we don’t see a lot in Winston, Salem. /That’s the land of corduroys.” It’s not exactly Lorenz Hart. But you forgive the clunkiness as the number goes on: Clara sings of the strangeness she sees in this new old land and the awakening of possibilities within herself. The song, like most others in the show, is a stunner.

The Broadway production, directed by Bartlett Sher, with Victoria Clark, Kelli O’Hara, and Glee’s Matthew Morrison in the main roles, was a transcendent experience. (That the show lost the Tony for Best Musical to Spamalot, is a joke worthy of, well, Spamalot.) I was thrilled when I heard that Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks would be giving this show its first major regional production. (The Palo Alto Players mounted the show a few years ago in a community theatre production.) TheatreWorks’ 2001 production of Guettel’s Floyd Collins, an unfocused but ultimately triumphant work, remains a theatrical highlight for me.

Guettel arranged Piazza’s score for a good-sized orchestra on Broadway, but so that the show could done be regionally, he re-orchestrated his songs for a six-piece ensemble. The music has been scaled down with amazing skill, and in one case, the lover’s duet that ends Act I, “Say It Somehow,” the lesser instrumentation actually improves the song, de-emphasizing some of the more conventional and sentimental elements in the music.  TheatreWorks also employs a much smaller cast— eight actors instead of the original 16.

This production, directed by Robert Kelley, is, on the whole, miraculous, successfully capturing the play’s evanescent, delicate emotions. J.B. Wilson’s fluid, gorgeous set presents Corinthian columns and Romanesque arches in ochres, siennas, and terracottas. Lighting designer Pamela Z. Gray works in the same hues, adding pale yellows to achieve the famous Florentine light, royal blues for interiors, and more ominous, darker blues for nighttime shadows. Costumer Fumiko Bielefeldt’s period-perfect designs put the American women in pastels with small flowered patterns, while the Italians are dressed more somberly in blacks, whites, and browns. And music director William Liberatore works miracles with his small crew.

Among the cast, Constantine Germanacos rivals Matthew’s Morrison’s performance as Fabrizio. He couldn’t be better. Singing “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” (“The World was Empty”) one of Guettel’s many masterpieces (made all the more so by being written and sung completely in Italian: the only recognizable word to American audiences is “Clara”), Germanacos uses his stunning voice to express his love in ways more important than words. And when he’s comforting the distraught Clara, he uses stillness to counteract her franticness. He sings “Love to Me” both to reaffirm his ardor for Clara and to convince her that she’s worthy of his love: The extraordinary song and Germanacos’ tender bravura have the desired effect—on Clara and the audience both.

Whitney Bashor also has a spectacular voice as Clara, and her singing is tremendous. She has trouble in the first act handling some of Clara’ sudden shifts to confusion or terror, a problem likely to go away as the run progresses, especially considering how good she is in the second act. Her Clara is a girl who’s found freedom in the Italian air and love among the Italian people after a cloistered life in America. Her Act II breakdown, when she fears she’s too damaged to accept Fabrizio’s love, is heart-wrenching.

As Fabrizio’s worldly father, Martin Vidnovic has an authentic Mediterranean charm. As one of the few people in the Naccarelli family that speaks English, Signor Naccarelli resides solidly in the Old World even as he recognizes that some things must give as the New World arises. Vidnovic captures this beautifully. Actor Nicholas Aliaga lends the elder Naccarelli son, Giuseppe, the one acknowledged by the family to be a failure, a humorous acceptance of his lot, while Ariela Morgenstern is pitch-perfect (in every sense) as his put-upon wife. (Morgenstern looks and acts as if she stepped out of an early Fellini film. She is Italian Womanhood, circa 1953.) Caroline Altman brings a watchful charm to the role of Fabrizio’s mother, a woman long since relegated to the role of audience for the rest of her lively family. And in what could be a thankless part without a fine actor to bring it to life, Richard Frederick fully inhabits the small role of Margaret’s husband, bringing him a sympathetic humanity.

Piazza is of course, Margaret’s show. It’s an amazing role for an actress, and Victoria Clark’s Tony Award was the most deserved one on recent history. Rebecca Eichenberger undertakes the part here, and at first, she’s not entirely successful. She seems to be feeling her way into Margaret’s southern accent, and her rendition of “Dividing Day,” a triumph for Clark, lies rather flat, un-imbued with the necessary sentiment. But her talent manifests itself in the second act: There isn’t a false move when she navigates Margaret’s changing psyche as the things she thought she knew have changed irrevocably. She doesn’t have the voice that Clark has (who does?), but by the time she sings “Fable,” the show’s devastating finale (essentially an aria), she’s made the role her own.

It’s the director that has to bring together all these shimmering, simmering emotional depths, to balance the delicate shifts of tone, and Kelley does a remarkable job. When Clara sings “The Beauty Is” while roaming the Uffizi, he places a pair of lovers stealing a furtive kiss in the background, underscoring Clara’s sense of romantic possibility. When she gets lost on the way to a nighttime tryst with Fabrizio, the set pieces shift menacingly, heightening Clara’s confusion and fear. Kelley uses his small cast to create a Florence that is fully populated.  He does make one misstep. “Aiutami” (“Help”), the Act II opener, is Guettel’s least successful number, a semi-comic revelation of the Italian temperament that’s neither comic enough nor revelatory enough. Kelley tries to push the humor by having the Naccarellis strike overwrought poses as Mama sings. (Altman is endearing here, even though the song isn’t.) Unfortunately, he does this in time to the music, and it comes dangerously close to choreography. But the rest of the play proceeds as a beautiful, heartbreaking dream. Sorrow, love, and hope waft in the air like dust motes in the Florentine sunlight. The characters’ desires and hopes become the audience’s.

At play’s end, Margaret finishes singing, turns upstage and joins her daughter’s wedding, rejoining life. The lights fade to black, and it’s a benediction for the Johnsons, for the Naccarellis, for all of us.

Rebecca Eichenberger portrays Margaret Johnson. (Photo: Tracy Martin)

The Light in the Piazza plays from now until September 19 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, 94039.  For more information, call 650-463-1960 or visit theatreworks.org.