IN AN AGE of musicals centered on pop groups or based on Disney films, nothing could be more refreshing than a play that aspires to something greater, as Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza  does. That aspiration is wonderfully realized in the staging now running in Mountain View, produced by TheatreWorks and directed by Robert Kelley. It is a show brimming with emotion, romance and humanity.

Part love story, part familial drama and part comedy of manners, the story follows Margaret Johnson and her daughter, Clara, two Americans on vacation in Italy. While sightseeing in a public square, Clara meets Fabrizio Nacarelli, a young Florentine, and the two immediately fall in love. Margaret tries to keep them apart, and not without good reason: Clara is mentally disabled, a 26-year-old with the mind of a child. However, when Margaret realizes that Clara truly loves Fabrizio, she must choose between protecting her daughter and giving her a freedom that may not be in the girl’s best interest.
The intellectual complexity of Lucas’ book is one thing that distinguishes the play from standard musical fare; another is Guettel’s beautiful music, with its operatic songs and romantic (in the musicological sense) orchestration.The Light in the Piazza  didn’t win a Tony for best original score for nothing, and moreover, its classical idiom lends the play a dignity that it might otherwise lack.

Heading up the superb cast is Rebecca Eichenberger in the difficult role of Margaret. Martin Vidnovic exudes suave Italian charm in his portrayal of Fabrizio’s father, while Whitney Bashor and Constantine Germanacos radiate perfect sincerity and emotion as the two young lovers. The entire cast displays great comic timing, which adds just the right amount of humor to an otherwise immensely poignant and at times, very sad story.

Much of the dialogue and singing is in Italian, though what is said is never a mystery to non-Italian speakers—a testament to the expressiveness of the actors. Indeed, when Signora Nacarelli (Caroline Altman) breaks the fourth wall to explain what is going on between the Italian characters, it feels unnecessary. This is a magnificent production that cannot be recommended highly enough.

The Light in the Piazza
Through Sept. 19
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts