Light in the Piazza, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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The Light in the Piazza

Book by Craig Lucas
Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
Directed by Robert Kelley
Musical director William Liberatore
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Mountain View, Calif.
August 25-September 19, 2010

(Left to right) Constantine Germanacos, Rebecca Eichenberger and Whitney Bashor in the TheatreWorks production of “The Light in the Piazza”
Photo by Tracy Martin

“The Light in the Piazza” is aptly named. From the hilarious “silence your cell phones and unwrap your candies” announcement before it even begins – done in Italian with a few key English phrases thrown in – to the final notes, this Tony-winning 2005 musical is infused with a gentle sunshine that may be due to its Tuscan locale or perhaps to the book by Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”). Of course the sweet story is not original to Lucas. It first appeared in the New Yorker in 1960 as a novella by Elizabeth Spencer and resurfaced a few years later on the screen, starring a very young George Hamilton and Yvette Mimieux as the lovers and Olivia de Havilland and Rossano Brazzi as their overprotective parents.

The music, by Adam Guettel, who must have inherited a melody gene from his grandfather (Richard Rodgers), is quasi-Sondheim and a little bit operatic. You probably won’t walk out whistling any of the tunes, but they fit the action. His lyrics are pretty good, too (try rhyming something with “nude boy statues”). And, in this impeccable TheatreWorks production, they are sung to perfection. Not only the leads, but secondary roles and the small chorus sound lovely, as does the six-piece but more than adequate orchestra, under music director William Liberatore. Add to that J.B. Wilson’s marble and stucco-inspired set that slides effortlessly from a Florentine square to the Uffizi to a haberdashery shop and a hotel room and back again and Fumiko Bielefeldt’s attractive 1950s costumes, and you have a show whose production values could stand up on any Broadway stage. Director and TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley has done it again.

Margaret Johnson (Rebecca Eichenberger), a middle-aged Winston-Salem housewife, has brought her lovely young daughter to Italy to see the sights. Florence is where Margaret and her increasingly distant executive husband Roy (Richard Frederick in a speaking role – he only is seen on the telephone) spent their honeymoon. Clara (the lovely Whitney Bashor) is 26 and has the body, face and, often, the intelligence to prove it. But, due to a childhood accident and resulting brain damage, she is emotionally fixed at around 12, naïve and prone to panic attacks when frustrated. Up to now, her parents have successfully protected her from the blows of the world, and she only has a dim idea of her own limitations.

And then the wind blows her hat off in the Piazza della Signoria and nothing will ever be the same. It is recovered by a handsome young Italian (Constantine Germanacos) who welcomes the pretty American tourist into his life and his voluble, excitable Italian family. Nothing Margaret can do can come between Clara and her beloved Fabrizio. Well, maybe if Margaret told the truth about her daughter’s condition, that might do it, but that’s the one thing she can never manage to blurt out. There is all manner of love going on here – young, first love; the bitter, angry love of Fabrizio’s sister-in-law Franca (Ariela Morganstern) for her cheating husband (a very funny Nicolas Aliaga); the old, somewhat tired love between Fabrizio’s parents but, most important, that of a mother who is willing to finally climb out on that limb to give the child she loves the life she deserves.

Clara and Fabrizio provide the plot line – and some charming moments as they try to communicate in different languages – but the older folks are the real stars. Margaret and Fabrizio’s father (Martin Vidnovic) carry on some delicate negotiations around their children’s future and Eichenberger and Vidnovic play them like the Broadway pros they are. Caroline Altman has a wonderful aria of forbearance as Fabrizio’s mother as her family enacts a true Italian operatic tragedy when the Americans briefly decamp to Rome. (Actually, this octet of woe is the funniest moment in the show and would be a hard act to follow if Altman’s bit didn’t do the trick so well).

The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Love is wonderful but it also is terrible. Truth may be over-rated but is it moral to withhold the evidence? It’s all well and good to start an adventure but, how do you know how it will end? The questions posed by “The Light in the Piazza” linger in the air long after the music has stopped.

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