Mom’s Away: Margaret learns to let her daughter go.
Mom’s Away: Margaret learns to let her daughter go.

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A breeze chases autumn leaves in the opening moments of The Light in the Piazza, and a zephyr teases a hat off a young woman’s head so the youth she’ll fall for can chase and catch it—nice flourishes, those, in an Adam Guettel musical, because this gifted man writes melodies as sweet and restless as a summer wind. They rise and circle, dart and swirl; they threaten to evaporate only to return from a startling, pleasing direction, blooming until they make you smile at their freshness.

They’re sweetly sung, too, in the thoroughly intoxicating production that’s settled in at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. A show that seemed dreamily romantic from the cheap seats on Broadway last year and downright ravishing on disc in the weeks thereafter now seems fuller, richer, more rewarding: It’s dark and light at once, a rapturously scored romance shaped by the instincts that shape so much of what we do and what we don’t. The story, adapted by Craig Lucas from Elizabeth Spencer’s novella about an American mother hesitantly surrendering her daughter to an Italian amor, manages to celebrate youthful optimism and a faith that love will conquer without ever losing sight of the mature realities that conquer so many loves; it’s big-hearted but never dewy-eyed, each of its generosities alloyed at least momentarily by a caution of one kind or another, until finally it surrenders to the possibility (but never the promise) of a happy ending. By the surprisingly evanescent finale, you’ll ache a bit—but you’ll smile often enough along the way, and if you’re not gladdened by the sheer joy that unfurls as the restless opening duet opens up into a shimmering, expectant chorale, you’re the proverbial immovable object.

The tale turns, it’s true, on the immature passion that flames between Fabrizio Naccarelli, an impetuous young Florentine, and Clara Johnson, a 26-year-old American beauty with the mental and emotional faculties of a girl half her age. (A birthday party, a Shetland pony, an accident…Lucas and Guettel fill in that backstory in a series of delicately pained songs and monologues as the story unfolds.) And yes, there’s a distant tobacco-executive father back home and the inevitably fractious clan at Casa Naccarelli to fill out the ensemble numbers and drive home the script’s disenchantments.

But the spotlight in The Light in the Piazza returns relentlessly to Margaret Johnson, the mother who dreams so fervently and so ruefully of ordinary happinesses for her damaged child—and whose protective instincts keep telling her to stand between Clara and the pain she knows will follow when the first rush of passion has passed. She’s a wonderfully human heroine, flawed and courageous, and the depth of Victoria Clark’s performance was one of the signal accomplishments of the 2005 Broadway season—so it’s a great pleasure to report that Christine Andreas (last seen in Washington with the early-’90s tour of My Fair Lady) turns in a characterization rich and textured enough to make the role securely her own. In the pained inflections and the brisk gestures, the steel in the spine and the doubt behind the efficient gaze, in the exquisite minor-key resignation of “Dividing Day” and the bittersweet rush of the concluding “Fable” that releases Clara to experience both the highs and the lows of love, Andreas’ Margaret is every inch a portrait of a privileged woman waking up to a hollowness in her life. With an assist from Lucas’ book, Guettel’s lyrics, and Bartlett Sher’s staging, she expands Margaret’s dawning awareness beyond the merely personal or even the thematically maternal into something basic and universal: She’s a mother, yes, learning that if they’re ever to fly, children must be allowed to risk the fall, but mostly she’s a human discovering that no life can really be lived when it’s circumscribed by fear.

The ensemble that surrounds her is uniformly first-rate. Elena Shaddow makes her charmingly pert Clara a little less innocent, a little more aware of what she’s asking for in a romance, and the choice lends a little intrigue to a character who can seem bland. David Burnham sings Fabrizio’s ardent “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” a little too carefully, putting less urgency into the vocals than into the body language, but he sells the wide-armed, jubilant finish pretty sensationally. Among the supporting players, Diane Sutherland and Laura Griffith in particular turn in sharply etched performances as Fabrizio’s generous mother and embittered sister-in-law.

In fact, everything about this handsome touring production measures up nicely against the memory of both the much-heralded Broadway staging and the telecast that introduced it to PBS audiences earlier this year. Catherine Zuber’s superb costumes, unchanged, evoke the cheerful, composed everyday chic of the story’s ’50s setting and its prosperous characters, and Michael Yeargan has adapted the Renaissance arcades of his Broadway set, originally conceived for a thrust stage with audiences on three sides, to the frame of a proscenium stage. If the effect’s not quite as open as it was, it’s still a nicely flexible space—and a surprisingly gratifying evocation, whether you’ve recently discovered Florence or remember it like Margaret from a happier and more innocent time.

And the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led stirringly by James Lowe, soars its way through Guettel’s exquisite score—whose orchestrations, sophisticated and smart, are every bit as wondrous as its melodies. That’s possibly the happiest discovery in store down at the big house on the Potomac: Finally, a tour that doesn’t sound wan next to the memories in your head and the music on the cast album. For anyone who’s wondered whether anyone on Broadway cares about writing new musicals more ambitious than Mamma Mia or more complicated than Hairspray—or whether audiences on the road will warm to them—there’s a hopeful warmth in The Light in the Piazza.