June 9 2010 12:00 AM

’Light in the Piazza’ burns brightly at Riverwalk

“Love knows no boundaries” could be the central theme of “The Light in the Piazza,” a romantic musical that explores more boundaries than just language. Based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the stage adaptation by Craig Lucas with music by Adam Guettel is a tender tale of love in all of its forms and its idealized potential to complete the human spirit.

Set in the romanticized version of Florence, Italy, in the summer of 1953, the story follows two Americans on vacation, Margaret Johnson and daughter Clara, as played by Emily English Clark and Paige Lucas. Left behind but still tethered to them are their home and a self-made, workaholic husband/father, Roy Johnson, played with believable crispness by Gordon L. Clark. It does not take long before beautiful young Clara catches the eye of a young Italian, a twodimensional caricature of male perfection named Fabrizio Naccarelli, made charming and three-dimensional by the talented Chad DeKatch.

As quickly as Farbrizio can say “buon giorno,” Margaret’s motherly instincts kick in to shield her daughter from saucy sin. But the laws of dramatic nature work against her, and after some semi-scandalous plot twists, order is restored and love conquers all.

Director Jane Falion integrates an overall first-rate production on the Riverwalk Theatre stage from smooth scene transitions to the perfect balance of sound fluent in both English and Italian. Given the relative complexity of the characters and particularly the operatically inspired music, the show soars because of its preparation and polish.

Lucas literally lights up the stage as Clara with gleeful naivety and a focused, supported voice that pings all the way to the last row. Lucas intelligently incorporates every inch of her body into her performance down to her fingertips, which pinch and play with her dress in relation to her character’s comfort level. DeKatch is a perfect match for Lucas in voice and enthusiastic demeanor. While both actors are singularly striking, it is their scenes together that make the stage glow and hum.

English Clark gives a pleasant, rounded performance, but she lacks the full range of her electrifying co-stars. Flat moments arrive when she is left unaided and supposedly unfiltered on the open stage. In scenes when she should be displaying her character’s wider emotional reactions to an empathetic audience, she continues to stiffen and smother her delivery as if she were still discussing matters with her controlling husband.

Conversely, the members of the Naccarelli family blend cohesively, each with charismatic Italian flair and voices to match. Doak Bloss as the father, Laura Davis Stebbins as the mother, Dale Edward Powell as older brother Guiseppe, and Betsy Bledsoe as Guiseppe’s jealous wife, Franca, form an idyllic ensemble capable of beautifully harmonized arguments.

As the musical director, James Geer masterfully decodes the complex textures of Guettel’s score, allowing the phrasing of the classically modern melodies to tell the story as much as the lyrics.

Tim Fox’s lighting design effectively hues the dreamlike Florence as much as his own scenic design, leaving the stage uncluttered but colorful. Aiding the picturesque palate are the simple yet flattering period costumes by Tomi Simmons.

Falion disregards sightlines only once in a pivotal scene that still sizzles despite that, but “The Light in the Piazza” succeeds in transporting its audience through time and space to an Italy that can only be imagined.

’The Light in the Piazza’

7 p.m. Thursday, June 10; 8 p.m. Friday, June 11 and Saturday, June 12; 2 p.m.

Sunday, June 13 Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive $20 general admission; $18 seniors and students (517) 482-5700 www.riverwalktheatre.org