Maureen Janson Heintz
The lovers: Abby Nichols as Clara Johnson and Kenneth Lyons as Fabrizio Naccarelli.
As warm light bathes three majestic arches on the stage of Overture’s Playhouse Theater, it is quite easy to be transported to a summer afternoon in Florence, Italy, in the 1950s. In Four Seasons Theatre’s glowing production of The Light in the Piazza, running through December 13, tourists wander through the ancient city squares and marketplaces reading guidebooks, gawking at feats of architecture and art. When a sudden gust of wind delivers a pretty American girl’s hat into the hands of a handsome Italian youth, something new and magical is bound to begin.
Clara — played by Abby Nichols as a wide-eyed, captivating and disarmingly innocent young woman — is traveling abroad with her sensible mother Margaret, delightfully captured by Tamara Brognano. When Fabrizio Naccarelli (an amiable Kenneth Lyons) appears with Clara’s hat in hand and only a smattering of English vocabulary, the two are immediately smitten.
Of course, the path of true love does not run smoothly: There are parental objections, language barriers, missed rendezvous and waves of doubt. In other musicals, the story of this oft-thwarted couple would be the focus, inspiring soaring melodies, tears of frustration and many romantic declarations. And while the young lovers are afforded all of these scenes, including the gorgeous, lyrical duet “Say it Somehow” that ends Act 1, the more interesting and complicated story is that of Clara’s caring but protective mother.
Nostalgic about her own trip to Italy with her husband long before the marriage withered, Margaret is simultaneously thrilled to see her daughter experiencing first love and frightened that it will destroy her. A childhood brain injury has left Clara with the mind and emotions of a 12-year-old, and, as Margaret knows, love can be very, very complicated. Brognano brings her gorgeous soprano to the complex role, along with a perfect Carolina accent, a bit of Southern obstinacy and the shadow of her character’s many disappointments.
Brognano is supported by a talented cast of strong singers, many of whom have extensive opera credits. Marie McManama is especially delightful as Franca Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s furious sister-in-law. Her rich voice and passionate rebukes to her cheating husband (the debonair Alex Van Handel) are highlights. And as the patriarch of the Naccarelli family, Tony Reitano does double linguistic duty — leading his loud and emotional family in Italian and then translating their antics into English for his new American friends. His natural warmth infuses each movement as he charms, and then is charmed by Margaret. In a small supporting role as Margaret’s husband Roy, Sam White brings texture and depth to phone conversations that could have made him a one-note villain.
Under the direction of David Ronis, interim director of opera at UW-Madison, the scenes flow naturally, with just enough stage business to allow the small cast to fill the city of Florence with interesting and specific characters. The aforementioned trio of arches transforms effortlessly from a cathedral to a hotel room, to outdoor cafes and promenades, thanks to Brandon Ribordy’s deceptively simple set design. The clever book by Craig Lucas gives each character wry and funny moments between songs. And the challenging score, conducted by Thomas Kasdorf, is condensed and delivered beautifully by six onstage musicians, although on opening night, the ensemble occasionally overpowered the singers.
The Light in the Piazza is closer to opera than American musical theater, so you might not leave the Playhouse humming the songs. But you will be affected by this unusual and nuanced love story, brought to life in a superb production.