Katie Rose Clarke as Clara in The Light in the Piazza.
Katie Rose Clarke as Clara in The Light in the Piazza.

The Light in the Piazza

As I watched The Light in the Piazza, I momentarily stopped being a critic. I didn't try to assess what I was seeing; I just sat back agog -- and yes, that funny old word fits exactly -- and entranced, letting this marvelous musical happen to me.

There's so much to take in. If the story loses your interest -- and I don't see why it should -- you can revel in Catherine Zuber's witty and gorgeous costumes; the elegant set by Michael Yeargan; the shifting play of light, courtesy of Christopher Akerlind; even the visually pleasing way that director Bartlett Sher groups his actors. And the music, of course, which buoys the entire production: harp and piano and sweeping strings under the direction of conductor James Lowe; beautiful, beautiful voices, all enlisted in the service of Adam Guettel's luscious score. Who'd have thought that the creaky Buell could produce such sound?

The story, from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, is set in 1953. Clara, a young girl visiting Florence with her mother, Margaret, falls in love with a handsome young Italian, Fabrizio. Margaret's first impulse is to stop Clara's romance, but she's eventually won over by her daughter's passion, and works with Fabrizio's wealthy, worldly family to negotiate a marriage. In the presence of Fabrizio's father, she finds long-dormant feelings of her own beginning to stir. The effect of sensual Italy on both middle-aged women and innocent young ones is an often-told story, but this one carries an extra complication. Lovely Clara has the mind of a ten-year-old child, the result of an accident she suffered at that age. This is not one of those romantic, fictional ailments that manifests as nothing more than a sweet childishness -- though it does that, too. The injury to Clara's brain carries darker undertones; she suffers moments of annihilating terror, storms of uncomprehending rage and tears. In part because of the language barrier, Fabrizio's family doesn't realize this, and Margaret is loathe to tell them, torn between the demands of truth, her reluctance to shatter Clara's joy, and the horror of having to admit to the Naccarellis that the daughter she so fiercely loves and protects is irrevocably damaged.


The Light In The Piazza

Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex

Presented by Denver Center Attractions through April 8, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.

Guettel's love songs seem to lift Clara and Fabrizio into the realm inhabited by great lovers of poetry and opera. Yet Craig Lucas's book is thoughtfully balanced between realism and romanticism, and we're never allowed to forget that there's a real problem here, one that young love, no matter how passionate, may not be able to overcome. Margaret's fears and calculations about her daughter are eloquently revealed in her lyrics. And there's also the warning of her estranged husband, Roy, given during one of their painfully pinched long-distance phone calls. Clara and Fabrizio must not be allowed to marry, he says. When the Naccarellis realize just who they've taken into their family, they'll sue. And Clara could never be a competent mother: "She'll drop the baby." But no one can really predict the future, Margaret thinks. Perhaps, instead of imploding, the marriage would provide safe harbor for her child.

Katie Rose Clarke is a lovely, luminous Clara, as innocent and full of feeling as you could wish, and with a pure, silvery voice. David Burnham's Fabrizio matches her for passion, and he, too, sings like an angel. Christine Andreas, another splendid singer, is poised, warm, wise and humorous as Margaret.

Over the last few years, I've wondered if it's possible for casting directors to find performers not influenced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and American Idol into howling and emoting and holding their high notes forever. The score for The Light in the Piazza demands real skill: vocal fluidity, subtlety in phrasing, musical intelligence -- and the three leads are not the only ones who display these qualities. Wendi Bergamini is precise and pretty and perfect as Fabrizio's sister-in-law. David Ledingham is a suave Signor Naccarelli. Even the part of Roy -- which could easily be thankless and stereotypical -- is acted by John Procaccino with an intriguing suggestion of frustrated warmth.

There are several moments I won't forget. Two people moving slowly upstage to the song "Let's Walk," apart, but leaning toward each other in a curve more expressive than words. The way the orange and peach colors of Margaret's and Clara's costumes pick up on and amplify each other. A fascinated Clara staring at the muscled torso of a Roman soldier in the Uffizi Gallery, and then reaching to touch his penis. The image of a young girl running across an empty stage, her wedding dress belling out, her figure framed by a gold-gray-silver sky. The Light in the Piazza is a welcome reminder of everything a theatrical performance can be.


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