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THEATER REVIEW: “The Light In The Piazza”

A gust of summer wind blows a young woman’s hat – and love – into the life of a young American tourist in Florence.

South Coast Repertory offers a glorious production of Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s romantic musical “The Light In The Piazza” through Feb. 23 in Costa Mesa.

Margaret Johnson (Patti Cohenour) honeymooned there years ago, before the war. Now it’s 1953 and she’s back (without her husband), showing 26-year-old daughter Clara (Erin Mackey) the sights.

Clara carries a sketchpad, mom clutches the trusty Baedeker and both are swept away by the wonder of this glorious city of art (Clara calls it “the land of naked marble boys”), its history and its delightful present. But both their lives will change forever when Clara’s blue hat is blown off and retrieved by a handsome young Italian named Fabrizio Naccarelli (David Burnham).

Margaret is nonplussed because Clara is, as she puts it, a “special child”: a childhood brain injury arrested her mental and emotional development. She is a child with the look and needs of a woman.

But Clara and Fabrizio are clearly smitten. What’s a mother to do when her daughter sings “I’m just a someone in an old museum ... and the beauty is when you realize someone could be looking for a someone like you.”

Her protective instinct pushes Margaret to try to keep them apart, but this is Italy, Fabrizio is handsome and youth and love will find a way, even though Fabrizio speaks very broken English and Clara almost no Italian.

The answer, of course, is that love transcends language, beautifully illustrated in “Say It Somehow,” the first-act closer: “I know the sound of touch me. I think I hear the sound of wrap your arms around me.”

Lucas’ book for this lovely 2004 piece is based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella. The music, by Adam Guettel, is by turns lyrical, discordant, even operatic and almost always unexpected. The show won six Tonys – two for score and orchestrations.

This is a pitch-perfect production, from Neil Patel’s moving Roman columns and statues that can be rolled in to Lap Chi Chu’s beautiful, atmospheric lighting and Michael H. Hooker’s sound design. Leah Piehl’s costumes and Kelly Todd’s choreography nicely evoke the period.

Musical director Dennis Castellano’s quintet of musicians provide understated accompaniment.

Director Kent Nicholson’s cast is excellent all around. Cohenour, from the original Broadway cast, has a fine, strong voice as Margaret and acting chops to match.

Mackey’s Clara finds the child-woman mix required in the text while getting us on her side in her risky headlong rush into love with Fabrizio.

If there is a star in this all-around excellent cast, it’s Burnham (also from the Broadway cast), whose voice, looks and acting make it easy to see why Clara is so taken with him.

The voluble Naccarelli family (Perry Ojeda, Mary Gutzi, Christopher Newell) and sister-in-law (Melina Kalomas) provide comic relief and strong musical support (especially in Kalomas’ case).

If you’re of a cynical turn of mind, this show is not for you. But if you are, ever were or want to be romantic, see “The Light In The Piazza.”

The details

“The Light in the Piazza” plays through Feb. 23 at South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 pm.

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.