Indeed, in this production, one focuses on the deeply personal story of Margaret (Wendy Welch), a woman escaping her crumbling marriage by taking daughter Clara (Kimberly Whalen) to Florence, where the girl meets and falls in love with a local boy, Fabrizio (Curt Mega). As Clara, somewhat developmentally disabled by a tragic accident for which Margaret feels responsible, awakens to herself as a woman, Margaret comes to terms with the disappointments of her life and comes to the realization that she has to let Clara go. In doing so, Margaret finds the strength to confront her own life and uncertain future.
Guettel's score, arguably one of the finest of contemporary musical theater, works on the smaller scale as well. (The reliance on a synthesizer for the strings isn't great, but it's understandable and one gets used to it quickly.) Musical director Terry Dobson manages to convey the drama of the score without overwhelming the space -- and bringing down the scale only intensifies the experience. It's possible in this scoring to hear melodic themes more clearly than in the larger orchestrations, making a different but equally valid experience.
As Clara, the amazing Whalen is a star in the making. She's not only the right age to play Clara, but she has a beautiful voice and flawless technique, hitting every note with precision, while always conveying the range of the character. In Whalen's hands, Clara's combination of innocence and a growing sense of herself and her ability to make her own choices are consistently compelling. Mega, also the right age for the role, is a passionate and convincing Fabrizio, and the two have wonderful chemistry between them.
But it is Welch who is a true revelation. In a beautifully understated performance she finds every nuance of a complex woman, torn between the nearly desperate protection of her daughter and her own desires to follow her heart. Welch handles Margaret's unfolding with transparency and delicacy that showcases her growing strength and, most importantly, her deep inner life. Moreover, her singing -- particularly in "Fable," "Dividing Day" and "Let's Walk" -- show the range of the character and her talents. And her interactions with Whelan as Clara are so clear and loving that the conflicts and heart of the character fill the theater.
The fine supporting cast, accurate period clothes by Michael Robinson, and inventive setting by David Walsh all work wonderfully as well to help give a new perspective on the romantic heart of this beautiful piece of theater.
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