R-S Theatrics' The Light in the Piazza Brings an Old-School Romance to Life

Clara and Fabrizio (Macia Noorman and Tiélere Cheatem) have a love that transcends all obstacles.
Clara and Fabrizio (Macia Noorman and Tiélere Cheatem) have a love that transcends all obstacles. MICHAEL YOUNG

The Light in the Piazza

Written by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel. Directed by Christina Rios. Presented by R-S Theatrics through August 26 at the Marcelle Theater (3310 Samuel Shepard Drive; www.r-stheatrics.com). Tickets are $20 to $25.

True romance has been almost entirely supplanted by shallower variations of the form. There are chick flicks, weepies, bromances, feel-good films, melodrama and even absolute woman-hating filth disguised as romantic comedy (Love, Actually being the main offender), but old-school, honest romances of the sort that make your heart sing are thin on the ground these days. Personally, I don't miss them, but many, many people do.

If you miss tenderness, genuine emotion and the exultant strength of two hearts beating as one, you dare not miss R-S Theatrics current production of The Light in the Piazza, which continues through the end of August. Director Christina Rios masterminds this sweet and moving musical, which offers genuine, unabashed and intimate love set to an impossibly lush score.

The Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel musical is based on the 1962 film of the same name, which was in turn inspired by Elizabeth Spencer's novella. The musical is set in 1950s Italy, which grants the proceedings a gauzy, old-fashioned charm. Europe has only just begun to live again after World War II, and a new generation of lovers will change the world in ways their parents would never imagine.

Mother-and-daughter American tourists Margaret and Clara Johnson keep to themselves while seeing the sights of Florence, which are crowded with people. Margaret (Kay Love) struggles both to engage with Clara (Macia Noorman) and keep her interested; Clara keeps wandering off to talk with strangers.

Rios crowds the small stage with people to-ing and fro-ing, and a few of them perform silent scenes that give life to the city. People drink at cafes and a man and woman quarrel, even as one young man stands transfixed by beauty: Fabrizio (Tiélere Cheatem) watches Clara as if watching a miracle unfold before him. He approaches her and speaks, and love begins for the two of them. Margaret tries to squelch it, but nothing can stop them: not the language barrier, their residency on different continents, Clara's disapproving father back home in America — not even a dark secret about Clara's past.

Fabrizio's father Signor Naccarelli (Kent Coffel) helps smooth things over with Margaret, and before you know it she's grudgingly extended their stay. Coffel and Love make as engaging a pairing as their offspring. He's open to change, to young love and life itself, while Margaret has closed herself off from these ideas. This being a musical, of course, she comes around.

The first act is a rush of new love growing stronger by the moment. It peaks with the lovely "Say It Somehow," as Clara and Fabrizio use glossolalia to communicate their feelings instead of physical methods, though not for lack of trying. The second act is all conflict and the winter of discontent, and is less satisfying, until suddenly it's very satisfying indeed. That's the familiar arc for any romance, but Noorman and Cheatem make it feel new and inspiring. They're aided by the parallel love story of Fabrizio's brother and sister-in-law. Giuseppe (Micheal Lowe) is a philanderer and Franca (Stephanie Merritt) knows it. Everybody knows, because they fight about it constantly. But Fabrizio and Clara make Franca and Giuseppe remember their own lost romance, and they try to rekindle it.

Performed by piano, cello, harp, violin and bass, the score is more classical than standard musical. Musical director Sarah Nelson and her small ensemble do excellent work, but the magic is in Terri Langerak's harp. I'm pretty simple; if you play a harp, I'm transported.

Unexpectedly, The Light in the Piazza has a down-tempo ending. Margaret sings "Fable," a song about the illusion of love created by the fairytale-romance industry. Alone and soon to return home to mundane America and her loveless marriage, she instead sings a song of warning to the daughters of the world to embrace the lover who knows you truly, and to not tolerate familiarity or comfort without love. It's good advice, which means it's rarely heeded.

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