You can pretty much sum up the theme of Light in the Piazza in three words: amore e matrimonio. The plot – taken from a 1960 novella of the same title, by Elizabeth Spencer – revolves around the romance that springs up between Clara (Lindsay Bayer), a young American woman travelling in Italy with her mother Margaret (Becki Toth), and Fabrizio (Joshua Grosso), a young Italian man living in Florence. It’s love at first sight when he spots her one fine day sightseeing in the piazza, but Margaret seems overprotectively antagonistic toward his romantic overtures. She reveals (rather late in the plot, for my taste) the reason behind her opposition: Clara is mentally disabled, the result of a horse accident in her youth. But Fabrizio (who, apparently, does not speak English well enough to perceive that Clara has the intellectual and psychological capacity of a twelve year old) stubbornly persists in his courting of Clara, with some help from his father Signor Naccarelli (Jeff Howell), who turns the Italian charm on Margaret. By the end of the first act, Fabrizio has managed a secret assignation in Clara’s bedroom, where he proposes marriage. Margaret – who has attempted, and failed, to reveal Clara’s hidden disability to Signor Naccarelli – now whisks Clara off to Rome. But Clara’s ensuing depression provokes a change of heart on the part of mama, and they return to Florence, where Clara and Fabrizio prepare for their nuptials. There’s yet another minor hiccup on the road to matrimonial bliss, having to do with the respective age of bride and groom, but that obstacle is readily overcome through Margaret’s determination to secure her daughter’s happiness, and the play ends as the two young lovers stand ready to take their vows in front of the altar.
If you are to take this musical on its own terms, it’s probably best not to think too too hard about what attracts these two young lovers to each other. Lacking a common language, they have no means of actually getting to know each other: their relationship is based solely on physical attraction (underscored by the moment, signalled beautifully by Grosso, when Fabrizio first sees Clara and is immediately enchanted by her). Add to that the fact that poor Fabrizio is unaware that he’s marrying a child in a woman’s body and there’s something kind of icky about the whole premise. So let’s just not go down that rabbit hole. The play’s true emotional center, in any case, lies with Margaret, whose own marriage is a loveless one, and who comes to realize that she needs to give her daughter a chance at her own life, even if it may bring her pain. “Love’s a fake/ love’s a fable” she sings in the final number, but “if you find in the world…that someone knows you/ love…if you can.” Toth is truly terrific as Margaret, conveying the range of emotions of a woman who is at once cynically realistic about her daughter’s condition and also feels pain and guilt over the accident that caused it. The psychological complexity of her character’s journey more than compensates for the lack of credibility in the lovers’ story.
The direction, by Stephen Santa, makes elegant use of Bryce Cutler’s set, which consists of an array of frames, four of which move on wheels to serve as walls, doors, alleyways, and windows. This scenic design – which references the play’s emphasis on image, and (perhaps unwittingly) on surface over depth – not only allows for fluid transitions between scenes but also, with the aid of Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design, cleanly establishes the play’s many different locations. Costumes by Kim Brown firmly establish the play in its 1950s timeframe. Adam Guettel’s score is unusual – more like an operatic score than a musical score – and while it’s unlikely anyone will go home singing the tunes, the music’s lushness and sophistication is gorgeously compelling. The cast is uniformly strong. Bayer brings the right combination of innocence and curiosity to the childlike Clara, although it was hard to see much evidence of the character’s mental disability in her performance. Grosso inhabits the role of the young, inexperienced, lovestruck Italian youth with conviction, and his vocal performance may leave audiences wishing Guettel had written a few more songs for Fabrizio. Howell does a lovely job channeling his inner Italian patriarch, and Patrick Cannon gives a fine comic turn as Fabrizio’s philandering brother Giuseppe. Rounding out the talented ensemble are Antonia Botti-Lodovico as Giuseppe’s wife, Cynthia Harding as Signora Naccarelli, and Richard Kenzie as Clara’s father.