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Love Songs

Italy and an Italian melt the heart of a young American woman in this charming musical

Nancy Asendorf shines.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/17/2009

The Light In the Piazza

Through July 5 at Theatre Hopkins

The Light in the Piazza takes its title from a turn of phrase used by the American tourist Clara Johnson. Head over heels in love with an Italian boy named Fabrizio, she declares that his love surrounds her like the afternoon sun in Florence. It's the kind of hopelessly sentimental metaphor that can only work in a stage musical--and even then only if the songwriting, singing, and staging are just right. Fortunately, Adam Guettel's music for Clara's big title song is intoxicating enough to cast a fairy-tale spell. And in the sparkling new production at Theatre Hopkins, director Todd Pearthree evokes the Florentine atmosphere and actress Amy Pierson provides the thrilling soprano to banish all skepticism.

Standing amid the three Italianate arches supported by ivy-wrapped columns, Pierson tilts back her head so her bright coils of red hair spill down her back and stretches out her arms as if trying to catch the last of that sunlight. As her big voice rises through Guettel's melody, you can almost sense her inner temperature rising as well, as if she is feeling parts of her body, numbed by years of North Carolina Baptist preaching, that she has never felt before. Ridiculously romantic, yes, but that's how we all feel during our first infatuations--and this song gets it right.

The flimsy story needs all the help it can get. As in the novels by Henry James and E.M. Forster, Piazza is the tale of the Anglo-Saxon ice encasing a young woman being thawed by the Italian sun and an Italian man. But neither Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 source novella, the 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland, nor the 2005 musical with dialogue by Craig Lucas come close to James' or Forster's depth of characterization. The twentysomething, virginal Clara is an implausible mix of naiveté and sexual confidence as she is dragged through every cathedral in 1953 Italy by a mother trying to relive her own honeymoon.

Ultimately, it's the mother, Margaret (Nancy Asendorf), who's the show's most interesting character. She's not the repressive villainess of most such stories. She's a well-intentioned woman who has good reasons for being overly protective and wary of romantic passions--due to two family secrets that are much hinted at and finally revealed at the end of each act. Asendorf keeps her long red hair pinned up beneath a succession of sun hats and her long body buttoned up in a succession of heavy blouses. She tries to keep her daughter away from her new admirer with a cheerful smile that suggests that they pay attention instead to the next statue in the next alcove. The tension in the corners of Asendorf's smile hints that even Margaret knows that such tactics are doomed.

So they end up at Fabrizio's home, meeting the young tie salesman's flirtatious father (Michael Salconi), the tolerant, philosophical mother (Alyson Shirk), the philandering brother Giuseppe (Tom Burns), and the hot-tempered sister-in-law Franca (Tamarin Lawler). The passive-aggressive Margaret is always polite, always smiling, but always looking for a way to end the romance, even after it becomes an engagement. She tells herself--and not without justification--that she only wants to protect the genuinely vulnerable Clara, but as Margaret revisits the cities of her own early romance and enjoys the attentions of Fabrizio's father, her resolve falters.

In the musical's book, Lucas makes the dubious decision to have the Italians talk--and even sing--in their native language for most of the first act. This may be realistic but it leaves the English-language audience baffled. Then Lucas abandons the realism as well, having the family learn fluent English in a mere matter of days. This foolishness prevents any of the Italians from developing into three-dimensional people. As Fabrizio, Robert Tucker unleashes a terrific tenor, looks good in an Italian suit, and remains unwaveringly devoted to Clara, but he's never anything more than a fairy-tale prince.

So the show lives or dies by its only fleshed-out characters, the mother and daughter. Guettel gives them his best songs, and the two actresses make the most of them. Asendorf breaks through the façade of Margaret's stewardess smile to ponder the "Dividing Day" between her marriage's bright beginning and current emptiness. Pierson breaks through the language barrier with the passionate love song "Say It Somehow." Despite the angry warnings arriving by phone from their husband and father in Winston-Salem, both women change themselves before your eyes.

Music director R. Christopher Rose does a good job of distilling the music from a pit band to only two instruments: an on-stage concert harp and electric piano--though it would have sounded more convincing with a better keyboard. Guettel is an obvious disciple of Stephen Sondheim, writing non-repeating melodic lines and conversational lyrics over art-song chord changes. The protégé is not as good as the mentor at incorporating humor into the lyrics and his songs sometimes become prosaic where they need to be poetic. The sheer ambition of the music is invigorating, however, and it occasionally blossoms into glorious choruses that do glow with Florentine sunlight.

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