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The Light In the Piazza


Review from Denver Post

An unexpected gust lifts a straw hat off a young woman’s head and deposits it fatefully in the hands of a new lover.

Leaves tumble. Bows take to strings. A soprano drags on her cigarette, then hits the vocal heavens. A tenor sings in Italian, yet there’s no need for translation. An American girl and an Italian boy can’t talk to each other but can fall fully in love.

It’s magic, all of it, and “The Light in the Piazza” has a bottomless supply of it.

Clara’s hat isn’t the only thing blowing in the Buell Theatre breeze. This seductive little musical emits pheromones that waft into the audience, take hold and never let go.

“The Light in the Piazza” is often called a throwback. That’s true in the sense that our story is set in 1953, the storytelling is elegantly old-fashioned and the score is not based on the rock catalog of say, “Josie and the Pussycats.” But the similarities end there.

Unashamed romanticism is nothing new for the genre, but Broadway’s archive of “love at first sight” tales are rarely as emotionally complex and transporting as this story adapted by the esteemed Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”) from a New Yorker novella. And their string-based scores were never as lush and operatic and orgiastic as Adam Guettel’s composition, which communicates a deep well of raw feeling.

Margaret and Clara Johnson, mother and daughter, are wealthy North Carolinians vacationing in Florence, “a city made of stories and statues” now emerging from its fascist period through the Marshall Plan and American tourist dollars. A hat takes flight and soon Clara and Fabrizio (yes, it rhymes with “breeze) are planning a wedding. There are complications, of course, but not just your clichés like a disapproving mother-in-law.

“Piazza” has one of those, too, but when we learn why, we see Margaret, seemingly so overprotective, in a new and sympathetic light. A childhood head injury has left Clara with the emotional capacity of a 10-year-old, painfully manifested in a number aptly titled “Tantrum.”

Though we meet four couples in (and out) of various stages of love, with a rainbow of emotional arcs, “Piazza” primarily becomes Margaret’s story as she struggles to reconcile her own loveless marriage and the possibility her baby girl is more emotionally capable than she or the doctors ever imagined.

Guettel’s groundbreaking (and ridiculously difficult) score is brought to gorgeous life by a six-piece orchestra intermingling cello, viola, harp, piano and guitar. When Fabrizio (tenor David Burnham) sings the passionate “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” we need only hear one word – “Clara” – to know his heart. When he and Clara (Katie Rose Clarke) sing “Say It Somehow,” they veritably make love in a song that builds not off a word but a sound. The universal language is love, and it is primal and nonverbal. “You can almost hear,” we are told, “what everyone is feeling.”

Margaret is an operatic role, and Christine Andreas’ unusual vibrato grows on you as you warm to her character. As the adorable lovers, Clarke and Burnham ooze chemistry. Clarke is wonderfully childlike, fresh, natural and vulnerable. Some question her soprano but she sounded sweet as sunshine to me. Burnham’s killer voice, clumsy communication and big heart are thoroughly winning.

Fabrizio’s extended family gets expert treatment as well, led by Aspen native David Ledingham as the comically suave Signor Naccerelli. A highlight is “Aiutami,” (Help Me”), a comic number in which Fabrizio’s mom (Diana DiMarzio) steps out of character and explains to us the family pandemonium playing out in Italian.

“The Light in the Piazza” is not for cynics. But so soon after having “All Shook Up” and “Legends” thrust upon us, it’s a gust of fresh air.

Glad that hat landed here.


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