Theatre: Passion shines brightly in the piazza

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Perhaps love may not conquer all, but it can certainly transcend language, culture and family secrets under the Tuscan setting of The Light in the Piazza, now playing at Arena Stage in Crystal City.

Based on the popular 1960 novella written by Elizabeth Spencer, The Light in the Piazza made its Broadway debut as a musical in 2005. Nominated for 11 Tony Awards, it went on to win six including Best Original Score for music and lyrics by Adam Guettal, grandson of legendary composer Richard Rodgers

Set in Florence in the summer of 1953, Clara Johnson, a young American tourist, and her mother Margaret encounter the dashing Fabrizio Naccarelli in a Tuscan piazza. It’s love at first sight for Clara and Fabrizio, much to the dismay of Clara’s mother for reasons that are only slowly revealed to the audience.

The almost child-like Clara and her ardent suitor are not easily deterred, however, forcing Margaret to confront her fears for her daughter and reveal the family’s darkest secret.

It seems a childhood accident left the beautiful but naive Clara emotionally underdeveloped, a trait that Fabrizio and his family find refreshingly charming. When Fabrizio proposes, Margaret relents only to find that Fabrizio’s family has an objection of their own to the marriage.

Playing the determined young lovers are Arena Stage newcomers Margaret Anne Florence and Nicolas Rodriguez as Clara and Fabrizio. 

Florence, last seen off-Broadway in The Fantastics, captures the wide-eyed wonder of a young woman eager to experience the joys of love. With her soaring soprano voice, she moves easily throughout the ranges required from the demanding score.

Rodriguez, known to many viewers as Nick Chavez on the popular ABC soap opera One Life to Live, is extraordinary in the role of Fabrizio. The rich tenor of his powerful voice conveys the urgency and impatience of his desperate desire for Clara.

Florence and Rodriguez are especially engaging in Passeggiata and the pulsating duet Say It Somehow.

The matronly glue trying to hold everything together is Clara’s mother Margaret, played by the multi-talented Hollis Resnik.

Resnik, recipient of nine Chicago Jeff Awards, two Sarah Siddons Awards and the Connecticut Critics Circle Award, poignantly displays a range of emotional intensity as Margaret struggles with accepting her daughter’s newfound love and her own loveless marriage.

The remainder of the ensemble cast is equally strong, with voices that all capably handle the unexpected harmonic shifts and a score that blurs the line between Broadway and classical.

Perfectly cast as Fabrizio’s father is Ken Krugman, with Mary Gutzi as his wife.  Jonanthan Raviv and Ariela Morgenstern are Fabrizio’s feuding brother Guiseppe and sister-in-law Franca.

All play off each other with perfect timing no easy feat when much of the script is in Italian and culture and language misunderstandings need to be performed with precision.

Accompanied by a small but lush on-stage five-piece ensemble of harp, violin, bass and cello, music director Paul Sportelli brings to life the musical beauty and complexity of this intimate chamber version of the original play.

With Tuscan-hued sets by Anne Patterson and lighting design by Michael Gilliam, Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith has created a tender story of a love that defies all odds for a chance at happiness.

While you won’t leave the theatre humming any one particular tune, you will leave feeling touched by some of the best musical theatre performances anywhere and encouraged by a story of hope that perhaps love does indeed conquer all.

A Light in the Piazza is playing now through April 11 at Arena Stage in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. For tickets or more information, call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arena-stage.org.

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