Amid the historic beauties of Florence, a young American woman named Clara and a young Italian man named Fabrizio fall ardently in love and wish to marry. What gives their idyll poignancy is that Clara -- so fresh and impulsive, so radiant and eager -- has the body and the feelings of a woman, but the mind of a 10-year-old. How will childlike Clara be able to cope with sex and married life, let alone pregnancy and childbirth? Fabrizio loves her now; will he always? Her mother is loving and intelligent, but what is she to do? How can she deny Clara her chance at happiness?
"The Light in the Piazza," a musical unlike other musicals, is based on the novella of the same name by Elizabeth Spencer. Adam Guettel, who wrote the music and lyrics, belongs to the post-Sondheim generation of composers who are trying to span the gap between art songs and show songs. Six violins are in the pit for this show, and no brass. Few people will leave the theatre whistling the music, but it brings home the emotions of the characters to the ear and to the heart. The book by Craig Lucas and the direction by Bartlett Sher are similarly uncompromised by Broadway conventions, unmistakably impelled by love of the characters and the urge to tell their story. In their skilled and sensitive hands, Clara's fragile happiness seems for two hours to be the most important thing in the world.
The show takes place in a magical Florence of the mind, idealized but never vulgarized, designed by Michael Yeargan (scenery) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting). Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison are a touching pair of lovers, and Victoria Clark as Clara's mother watches over her daughter with anxious maternal love. "The Light in the Piazza" evokes but does not exploit the eros of innocence, and it is spellbindingly beautiful.
This review first appeared on Backstage.com on 4/25/05.