The Light in the Piazza

• Adam Guttel’s smashing musical love story

Based on the 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer, The Light in the Piazza is a love story set in Italy in the summer of 1953. The music and lyrics by Adam Guttel rival Stephen Sondheim at his best. Craig Lucas’ book provides the perfect narrative.

In critiquing a performance, the adjectives often seem inadequate. So it is with this production. Every aspect of Light in the Piazza contributes to a flawless theater experience. Victoria Clark is Margaret Johnson, a mother bringing her daughter, Clara, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, to Italy for a summer of cultural enlightenment. The art and ancient glory of Florence forms the backdrop for Clara’s discovery of love when she encounters Fabrizio.

Fabrizio (Wayne Wilcox) sings of his joy in “Passeggiata” and against the wishes of Margaret introduces them to his family. His father, Signor Naccarelli (Mark Harelik), mother (Patti Cohenour), brother Guiseppe (Glenn Seven Allen), and sister-in-law Franca (Kelli O’Hare) represent an Italian family of means. Every portrayal precisely represents the character.

From the Overture to Clark’s heartbreakingly beautiful finale, “Fable,” Guttel’s lyrics and music reach a peak of excellence not seen on stage for years. Nothing on Broadway equals the beauty and pure delight of the work. Keenan-Bolger represents naivete, and her meeting with Wilcox results in a duet in “Say It Somehow,” the epitome of young love. Their voices blend so well, it seems to predict a fairytale ending.

Underlying the story is a mystery that Margaret continually confronts. Conversations with her husband, Roy (Andrew Rothenberg), at home in Winston-Salem, hints at Clara’s secret. Revealed at the wedding rehearsal, romance is apparently doomed, but a fluke saves the day.

Clark is mother-love personified. Weddings always bring tears. “Fable” only intensified the emotion. Guttel’s arrangements and the choreography by Marcela Lorca combined in “Aiutami,” a number performed by the Naccarelli family, to make movement, lyrics, and music an integrated whole. Catherine Zuber’s costumes detail every aspect of 1950’s elegance, wasp waists, billowing skirts, glorious colors, stunning hats, and gloves.

Ted Sperling, musical director, conductor and pianist, directed the orchestra with Lori Ashikawa on violin, Kara Bershad on harp, Mark Lekas on cello, and Tom Mendel on acoustic bass. The instrumentation supported the romantic and tender lyrics beautifully. At curtain call, Clark recognized Sperling and noted his departure for a commitment in New York. The moment revealed the support felt by everyone involved in the production.

Audiences have been roundly criticized for giving ovations not completely deserved. A reserved house did not stand, but in our hearts we acknowledged perfection.

In John Lahr’s New Yorker review, Feb. 2, 2004, he says: “I suspect that the swamis of the rialto will pass on bringing it to Broadway. Still Guttel’s kind of talent cannot be denied. He shouldn’t change for Broadway; Broadway, if it is to survive as a creative theatrical force, should change for him.”

I couldn’t agree more. Extended until Feb. 22; call the Goodman Theatre–(312) 443-3800.

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