ORLANDO — As a musical, “The Light in the Piazza” opens in a seemingly cute — and predictable — way.
Margaret Johnson is an American tourist who has brought her teenage daughter, Clara, to Florence, Italy. It’s the summer of 1953, nearly a decade after the second World War ended, and Margaret is eager for her daughter to see the amazing sights in this historic city, including the Piazza della Signoria.
It feels like a comical send up of American tourists in a foreign land. Mom reads obsessively from her tourist guide book, while Clara follows along ….. until Clara is discovered by Fabrizio, a handsome 20-year-year Italian who is instantly smitten by her.
With his so-so grasp of English, his efforts to court Clara are initially humorously clumsy, but Clara seemed excited to be getting the attention. All of this is most annoying to Margaret, who does her best to shield Clara from the young man and get her back onto their walking tour.
But Fabrizio is insistent. He appears to magically pop up everywhere Margaret and Clara go, further aggravating Margaret, who begins to seem exasperated that her daughter is far more interested in Fabrizio than the sight-seeing.
With the pleasant songs by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, “Light in the Piazza” feels initially like a breezy romp, if one we’ve seen before: the overprotective mother stumbling in her efforts to shield her daughter from a male admirer. After all, they’re only on vacation, and the last thing mom needs is a lovesick daughter crying her heart out on the plane ride home.
At that point, “Light in the Piazza” – which is now being performed at the Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando — almost feels overly predictable, and you start to wonder how they’ll carry out a full-length musical with a thin plot about mama rolling her eyes every time that pesky Italian boy shows up to chat with her daughter.
As it turns out, the play – based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer and the winner in 2005 of six Tony Awards – slowly reveals that it has a lot more up its sleeve than you might initially imagine. The first inkling of this comes when Fabrizio tells his family about the beautiful young girl he has met and fallen for, and they want to meet Clara and her mother. The meeting is arranged, and Fabrizio’s domineering father, Signor Naccarelli, is only too eager to embrace these Americans – and even welcome them into the family. Margaret sits at his table, and struggles awkwardly to explain that there’s something they really need to know first before they consider allowing this puppy romance to blossom …. except she can’t quite bring herself to say it. The most she can state is that Clara is a “special” child. But she says it in a halting voice, and you get the uncomfortable sense that Margaret is not boasting about her daughter, but almost issuing a word of caution.
Or a warning.
Fabrizio whispers to Clara at the family gathering that he wants to talk to her privately, and asks her to sneak out of her hotel at midnight and meet up with him. Clara does, but there’s a powerful scene when she gets lost in the crowd, can’t figure out where she is – and breaks into a complete panic. She falls to her knees in the street, crying. Even when an Italian pedestrian offers to help, Clara seems too shattered to respond. What’s going on here – why is the girl reacting so badly to getting lost?
Even in the final scene in the first act, when Fabrizio sneaks up her Clara’s hotel room to find out why she didn’t show up at midnight, and Margaret walks in on the two of them lying in bed together, and feel certain you know where the story is going – a second act showing the mother’s increasingly frantic attempts to break them up before their emotional attachment gets too deep.
And if you assume that, you will be completely wrong — and likely more than a little bit surprised at how dramatically the story moves in a direction you probably didn’t seem coming.
“The Light at the Piazza” is a surprisingly darker and more dramatic tale than it initially appears, and works so much better as a result. The comical look at teenage romance between an Italian young man with limited English skills and an American girl eager to be loved by a boy seduces you into thinking this is a TV sit-com style story. But there’s a real sadness beneath the surface, and more than anyone else, it revolves around Margaret, who changes considerably in the second act as she makes a startling decision about her daughter’s future.
Mad Cow’s production benefits from the way the leisurely pace lulls you into making mistaken assumptions about where this play is headed – and its ability to surprise us again and again. It’s helped as well by superb performances by Laura Hodos as Margaret and Robert Johnston as the sweet but overly determined suitor Fabrizio. This is a charming play about likable people in an increasingly difficult situation, one that is nobody’s fault – but one that leaves everyone with some painful choices to make. Even by the end, you’re likely to feel haunted by questions about what kind of future Clara and Fabrizio truly have.
“The Light in the Piazza” is playing at the Mad Cow’s Harriett Theatre through Jan. 5. Show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. The theater is at 54 W. Church St., and tickets can be purchased by calling 407-297-8788.
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