Bloomington Civic Theatre shakes things up with The Light in the Piazza

Italian hunk meets woman-child: Aleks Knezevich as Fabrizio, Jessica Fredrickson as Clara

Italian hunk meets woman-child: Aleks Knezevich as Fabrizio, Jessica Fredrickson as Clara

From the opening scene of The Light in the Piazza, we get an inescapable sense of beautiful surfaces with something deeply amiss underneath. The musical begins in Florence in 1953, where Margaret (Karen Weber) has returned to the scene of her greatest connection to her husband. The problem is that he's back home in America, and Margaret is instead accompanied by her strangely immature grown daughter, Clara (Jessica Fredrickson).

Well, we all have trouble coordinating our vacation schedules sometimes, although when Clara's hat serendipitously blows away in a breeze and is picked up by young Italian hunk Fabrizio (Aleks Knezevich), Margaret's protectiveness of her daughter seems a shade rabid. When Fabrizio—clearly smitten, with Clara seconding the emotion—pursues things farther, Margaret tries to clamp down.

Love, of course, is like water: unstoppable, onrushing, sometimes capable of astonishing damage, and Margaret can only play sentry hen for so long. Soon she's in the orbit of Fabrizio's well-off family, including philandering brother Giuseppe (Thomas Karki) and their father (Paul Coate), whose sensibilities are in no way offended by Margaret despite the presence of his own wife (Corey de Dannon).

This show opened on Broadway in 2005 and hoovered up all manner of awards. It's a departure from recent big-scale musicals, with Adam Guettel's score dipping into operatic orchestration and generally refusing to acknowledge the hegemony of pop and rock. It works here, evoking a very American idealization of Old World culture, the Continent seen through the eyes of the open-hearted American: full of beauty, mystery, love, and statuary with genitalia.

Soon enough Fabrizio and Clara are gliding along greased rails to the altar, to Margaret's initial horror (Weber deftly delivers asides to the audience detailing Margaret's mounting apprehension). Turns out the "situation" with Clara, as Margaret delicately describes it in the first act, involves a literal kick to the head at a birthday party (stay with me now), which has left Clara's emotional and intellectual capacities firing under diminished power.

Fredrickson walks a delicate line as the childish Clara, all wide-eyed and full of naive enthusiasm that masks her character's condition. Weber is full of a mother's clamped-down fear at first, then convincingly conveys waves of yearning that shatter ossified passion in Margaret's own life, to the point that she finally decides that the purity of love overrides ostensible good sense. Knezevich carries his own rather uncomplicated role as a starry-eyed horndog.

The production is satisfyingly entertaining for a couple of reasons. First is Joe Chvala's direction. The Flying Foot Forum founder's touch with movement renders several crowd scenes as convincingly graceful (and even fleetingly informative) diversions. The second is undeniably high-quality voices. Fredrickson entirely holds her own as Clara, conveying wonder without a saccharine aftertaste, while Weber turns in absolutely chill-inducing turns (not least in "Dividing Day," a delicate song-story about misunderstanding and the passage of time, which she delivers with grace and wisdom).

BCT has shaken things up this year, bringing in outside directors while retaining the services of stalwart John Command. It's hard to say what effect this has had to date. At the performance I attended last weekend, the advanced age of the audience made it safe to assume there were no more than a handful of City Pages readers. This viscerally challenging and stimulating musical was being presented to a decidedly niche audience, but it generated the sense that BCT is a theater in transition (to what, it's hard to say).

So here we have a tricky, morally complicated, smart musical, tackled by a well-funded community theater. There's no doubt that it works. Getting hitched, running away, harking back to the past: It's all there, and rendered well. I can't speak for BCT's future, or past, but they have delivered the goods this time out.