Encountering a great piece of art can lead to a moment of transcendence. That’s the idea behind the mother-daughter tour of Florence in “The Light in the Piazza,” the 2005 musical romance composed by Adam Guettel and written by Craig Lucas. And for audiences at New York City Center, where an exquisite Encores! revival directed by Chay Yew opened on Wednesday, a sensational performance by Ruthie Ann Miles delivers a feeling close to the sublime.
Miles, who was nominated for a Tony Award this year for her role as the beggar woman in the Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” embodies a vivid and elegant portrait of maternal empathy and restraint as Margaret, a veteran’s wife from the South. She honeymooned in Italy; now it’s the summer of 1953, and her marital flame is dimming just as her daughter, Clara (Anna Zavelson), first discovers desire. It’s a bittersweet reflection that Miles imbues with grace, fortitude and the circumspect wit of middle age.
That Margaret and Clara are Asian American adds a further layer of shading to their outsiderness abroad. (“I’m as different here as different can be,” Clara sings.) But Clara’s sense of otherness is rooted in a less visible aspect of her identity. As Margaret tells the audience in a brief aside, Clara is “very young for her age,” her cognitive and emotional abilities stunted by an incident in her childhood.
But it’s not Italian art that broadens Clara’s consciousness on their trip; soon after a local dreamboat named Fabrizio (James D. Gish) retrieves Clara’s hat from the wind, Margaret assumes the unenviable task of trying to steer her daughter away from love at first sight.
Miles’s rich and precise vocals illuminate Guettel’s lush, poetic score, which is nimbly and gorgeously orchestrated by Guettel, Ted Sperling and Bruce Coughlin. (Listen for the lone clarinet that accompanies Margaret’s most intimate moments of introspection.) Miles also radiates wry intelligence, as an astute mother hoping to rein in her daughter’s increasingly unbridled impulses, another aspect of the story heightened by casting the characters as Asian American.
The young lovers flirt over fumbling to understand one another (Fabrizio speaks little English, though Gish’s Italian is also unconvincing). And while the actors’ connection lacks animal magnetism, their characters are united in their reveries about how love is supposed to feel. Clara has the more compelling awakening in this regard, and Zavelson, making her professional New York debut, lends an effervescent innocence to her portrayal of self-discovery. Both actors sing with appealing earnestness, but Gish’s Fabrizio is painted in broader strokes, as though smitten Florentine hunks had been loitering around every corner for Clara to find.
Fabrizio’s family tends to be broader as well, though knowingly. His brother, Giuseppe (Rodd Cyrus), is a slick womanizer whose wife, Franca (Shereen Ahmed), seethes with jealousy and warns Clara about the fickleness of infatuation. His mother, Signora Naccarelli (Andréa Burns), pauses the family’s rowdy display of collective passion during the Italian-language number “Aiutami” to assure the audience that she’s aware the Naccarellis are drama queens. It’s a self-conscious nod, from Guettel and Lucas, to their uncommon fusion of operatic melodrama with the psychological realism of contemporary musical theater. (The duo’s “Days of Wine and Roses,” now running at the Linda Gross Theater, builds on that formula.)
In Yew’s concert staging, which runs through Sunday, those elements cohere seamlessly. (Though Miles and the ensemble carry leather-bound scripts that resemble guidebooks, the production is fully and beautifully staged.) The 16-member orchestra is the magnificent centerpiece, elevated on a colonnade platform that runs the length of the stage. The set design by Clint Ramos and Miguel Urbino emphasizes depth of field, its white framework a receptive canvas for Linda Cho’s refined midcentury costumes and the warm ambers of David Weiner’s lighting.
That sense of dimension and perspective also comes through in Margaret, as well as in Fabrizio’s father, Signor Naccarelli (Ivan Hernandez), who eventually grow simpatico as their children are drawn to each other. Margaret may be ambivalent about love herself, recognizing its inevitable fallibility (her husband, played by Michael Hayden, appears in strained long-distance phone calls), but she invests in its possibilities for Clara, a generosity of spirit that gives “The Light in the Piazza” its shimmer.
Margaret’s instinct to protect her daughter, and her ultimate reconciliation of sorrow with hope, are the musical’s emotional center. And there will be yet a deeper level of resonance for audiences familiar with Miles’s own personal history, of losing her 5-year-old daughter, Abigail, when they were struck by a car in 2018, and, two months later, the baby Miles was pregnant with at the time.
Miles reflected in a recent interview that the conclusion of Margaret’s story might allow her to “finally take a breath.” Whether that turns out to be the case, Miles’s performance is certain, at least, to leave audiences breathless.
The Light in the Piazza
Through June 25 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.