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Bright Light

'Light in the Piazza' is Spreckels' best show to date

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MOM AND ME Eileen Morris, left, and Jennifer Mitchell are excellent as mother and daughter in ‘Piazza.’
  • MOM AND ME Eileen Morris, left, and Jennifer Mitchell are excellent as mother and daughter in ‘Piazza.’

When 2005's Light in the Piazza first played on Broadway, there was much talk that the show, a musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novel, marked a return to the gorgeous scores and lyrical drama of the golden age of musical theater. Ignoring decades of rock and pop influences, composer Adam Guettel created a score that was lush, orchestral, complex, operatic and brazenly romantic.

In a remarkably strong new production at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, director Gene Abravaya, taking a real risk on something this difficult, has more than met the challenge, assembling some first-rate singers and a stellar chamber orchestra for what is quite possibly the most musically competent and artistically successful show the company has ever staged. That some of the cast sing and speak (convincingly) in Italian only adds to the impressiveness.

Set in Italy in the 1950s, the story follows two visiting Americans, the wealthy southerner Margaret (brilliantly played by Eileen Morris) and her wide-eyed daughter Clara (Jennifer Mitchell, whose pure singing voice and expressive face make every emotion clear as a bell). When Clara falls in love, at first sight, with the youthful and exuberant Fabrizio (Jacob Bronson, as emotionally alive and effective as Mitchell), the stage is a set for a series of clashes between Margaret and Fabrizio, and Margaret and Clara, with Margaret fighting to reconcile her desire to protect her daughter with her hope that Clara will find the love she never allowed herself.

The book by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss; Amélie, a New Musical) includes scenes spoken in Italian, giving a sense of the lost-in-translation confusion that impedes Clara and Fabrizio throughout. In one delightful turn in the second act, Fabrizio's mother (Barbara McFadden, wonderful) drops the Italian to explain in English what her husband (an excellent Steven Kent Barker) has been saying to their other son (Tariq Malik) and his wife (Amy Marie Webber).

With fine design and technical support, Spreckels' Light in the Piazza is an impressive achievement, dripping with the danger and allure of love—and that's worth experiencing in any language.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½

'The Light in the Piazza' runs Friday–Sunday through Oct. 25 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Friday–Saturday, 8pm; Saturday–Sunday, 2pm matinee. $16–$26. 707.588.3400.

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