- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

“The Light in the Piazza” is a museum-quality musical, possessing a subdued and sophisticated beauty and the kind of delectable languor that steals over you when you get lost in a painting or another work of art.

Composer Adam Guettel, the grandson of Broadway great Richard Rodgers, does not conform to standard musical formula with this chamber work, adapted by Craig Lucas from Elizabeth Spencer’s 1954 novella about an ultraprotective Southern matron touring Italy with her beautiful young daughter.

The lushly romantic music is complex and all of a piece, devoid of obvious showstoppers and novelty song-and-dance numbers. The musical has a graceful, circular rhythm rather than trajectory propulsion, which is similar to the experience of discovering Italy at your own pace rather than following a tightly scheduled tour.

While the show centers on the lightning bolt love between the daughter, Clara (Elena Shaddow), and Fabrizio (David Burnham), a handsome 20-year-old Florentine, “The Light in the Piazza” also deals with love that is combative, jealous, resigned and faded. Even that staple of musicals and romantic comedies — wedding bells ringing before the curtain falls — has been reconsidered, not upbeat and giddy but imparting a quiet happiness. The young couple setting off on a joyful new life together is customary, but what gives the ending an unexpected poignancy is the subtle possibility that the older characters — especially the mother, Margaret (Christine Andreas) — might have a second chance at love and pleasure.

There is nothing typical about “Light in the Piazza,” directed with cinematic fluidity by Bartlett Sher, who gives the musical the look and feel of a 1950s Technicolor movie, the type that starred Deborah Kerr wearing an infinite variety of dramatically fluttering silk scarves, without resorting to a sendup of Hollywood. The musical’s moody interplay of shimmering light and deep shadows also recalls Italian movies of the period, as does Catherine Zuber’s body conscious costumes that give even the men an hourglass silhouette.

Designer Christopher Akerlind’s lighting captures the golden, pouring light peculiar to Italy, but much of the luminosity also comes from the unrestrainedly gorgeous music. Each character is given a musical motif, ranging from Clara’s light and hopeful lilt, the frenzied passion of Fabrizio, and the gigolo jauntiness of his father, Signor Naccarelli (David Ledingham) and brother Giuseppe (Jonathan Hammond), both more seasoned practitioners of romance.

The most aching theme belongs to Margaret, the wealthy American wife who narrates the musical and is its moral compass. Her music is autumnal and melancholy, particularly in the fragile world-weariness of “Dividing Day,” as opposed to the dizzying, springlike strains of Clara seen in “The Beauty Is,” “The Light in the Piazza,” and “Say It Somehow.” However, the second act highlight, “Walk With Me,” is imbued with Clara’s motif, only deeper and more mature as Margaret and Signor Naccarelli court with seasoned delicacy.

Margaret is, on the surface, a cold-eyed realist, forced into a role of great responsibility due to the fact that Clara is not a typical young woman. An accident impaired her emotional and psychological development, leaving her in some ways childlike and in others, just like any other girl. Margaret feels the need to protect her daughter from life, but a summer in Florence reawakens her to the prospect of dreams, both for Clara and for herself.

Miss Andreas is a commanding Margaret, crisp and ladylike in public but falling apart in the privacy of her hotel room. It is delicious to see her bend and soften under Italy’s spell, her body language and exquisite voice becoming warmer and expansive.

In the original production, Clara is a creation that could have emerged only from the silver screen — blond in the Grace Kelly mold and such a quintessential 1950s American beauty that she is strikingly different from the Italians. Miss Shaddow, on the other hand, has the modern looks and briskness of a Jennifer Aniston type and tends to blend into the scenery. Her voice wobbles in her big numbers, and overall, she does not create a singular impression.

The “wow” factor is provided by Laura Griffith as the hot-tempered and saucy sister-in-law and Mr. Burnham’s ardent and undone Fabrizio. Unfortunately, sound problems at the Opera House mar the enjoyment of “Light,” and the musical’s intimacy is sometimes lost in such a broad space.

Still, there is not a lovelier place to be this season than in the Italy conjured by “The Light in the Piazza,” where love begins with a straw hat carried aloft by a summer breeze and the promise of romance beckons from every cafe and gallery, urging you to just let go.

***

WHAT: “The Light in the Piazza,” music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas

WHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 7.

TICKETS: $25 to $94

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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