Florence, Italy—“a city of made of statues and stories,” we learn to our pleasure in the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s current production of The Light in the Piazza. This second show of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival season celebrates—with exquisite music—first love and a joyful innocence that’s almost inexpressible.
This romantic yet realistic musical—with book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel—is set in 1953, the same year Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck showed us a fairy-tale post-war Italy in Roman Holiday. The story here though is more down-to-earth: a wealthy American mother, Margaret Johnson, is revisiting the Florence of her own hopeful youth, daughter Clara in tow. The daughter discovers—is discovered by—a charming young Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli, and the magic begins.
But Lucas has complicated this tale, even as Guettel complicates the music (with counterpoint, occasional atonality, and operatic lyricism). Clara, in her 20s, is remarkably childlike—the picture of naiveté. Spontaneous and impulsive, she says aloud whatever she’s thinking, claps her hands or sulks, behaving like the child her mother treats her as.
Clara is, in fact, “special”—the most her worried mother can say of her condition. We learn that her development was arrested in childhood, when she was kicked in the head by a pony at her birthday party. She’s now a perennial 12-year-old, protected by her parents and unable to live independently. But love, especially in Italy, has remarkable curative powers.
Despite all Margaret’s efforts, romance blossoms—from the moment Fabrizio catches Clara’s hat blowing away in the Piazza della Signoria. The Americans are invited into the Naccarellis’ tasteful home, which affords all sorts of emotional counterpoint to notions of lasting love. Signor N. probably has a mistress; his elder son Giuseppe is married but constantly cheating; and Margaret herself, in strained long-distance calls to her workaholic husband, realizes their marriage has long been moribund.
Against all these marital warning signs, the tender and exciting love between the young couple flourishes, more poignant for its fragility. Through both music and story, this musical is curiously, deeply moving, a paean to the purest form of young love. You can’t help being swept up in its sweetness.
The main ensemble—handsomely cast and ably directed by Brett Smock—is excellent. As Margaret, Sally Wilfert beautifully negotiates overprotectiveness, love, and letting go; Heather Botts’ Clara is wispy yet resistant, animated and clear in her desires. Nathan Gardner’s Fabrizio is played much younger than in the Broadway version, which makes him more boyish, and even more scattered and sincere.
Nick Fitzer’s Giuseppe is an irresistible rake. His attractive wife Franca, played by Tracy Ganem, is fiery Italian to the core. As the Naccarelli parents, Patrick Oliver Jones and Ariela Morgenstern are smooth, worldly, and eminently likeable. The Florentines, of course, speak mostly Italian and accented English (both very well done), their meaning made accessible through the acting.
David Arsenault’s versatile set shifts easily from the main plaza, with its Michelangelo statue and arcades, into Clara’s elegant hotel bedroom, the Nacarelli’s haberdashery, and their apartment. (One wishes for merely the lower portion of a more life-sized David, though; the full figure is topped by an all-too-cherubic face.)
Unfortunately for the play’s title, meaning, and setting, Dan Ozminkowski’s lighting design doesn’t come close to the brilliance and comfort of Italian sunshine; its yellows are inflected with moody greens and depressing grays. But Lucy Brown’s costumes (matched by Jason Flanders’ hairdos) are mostly perfectly in tune with mid-’50s attire, right down to the omnipresent gloves and the softening of Margaret’s clothes as her defenses drop.
A few missteps, though—a young Italian, even one as inexperienced as Fabrizio, would never ever be seen with his shirt half tucked in. The double kiss of greeting is done in the wrong direction; and would an attentive mother ever leave her daughter’s dress lying on the floor? The opening crowd scenes are awkwardly staged, and the flower seller doesn’t dress, look, or behave as her character would.
These distractions aside, the play’s story and music, the quality acting and strong singing (despite some loss of control in the belting, especially Gardner’s), keep us in the moment. Under Jeff Theiss’ musical direction (complemented by Ryan Kilcourse’s sound design), the small orchestra delivers us to another, finer world.
It’s a world where parents on both sides may object, but love—or the hopeful belief in it—triumphs. I guarantee you’ll leave A Light in the Piazza feeling not sentimental, but filled with sentiment.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.