“Piazza” burns dimly at Fox Theatre

Florence could be called the jewel of Europe. With its cobblestone streets, famous statues, breathtaking architecture and affectionate men, the city is refined within its cultural tradition. The Light in the Piazza, however, lacks the sophisticated control of the city in which it takes place.

The diluted musical, based on Elizabeth Spencer’s novella, opened at the Fabulous Fox Theatre (527 North Grand Blvd.) Tuesday evening and runs through Sunday, Feb. 11. The Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) play is charming but not enchanting enough to merit the six Tony Awards it won in 2005. The dialogue has its comedic moments, mostly due to seasoned thespian Christine Andreas’ portrayal of the overprotective mother Margaret Johnson, and the misunderstandings between the Winston-Salem Johnsons and the non-English-speaking Italians.

Childish Clara Johnson (understudy Leslie Henstock) and her mother are vacationing in Florence and Rome during the summer of 1953 when Clara meets the handsome, fumbling Florentine Fabrizio Naccarelli (David Burnham). The youths’ love at first sight concerns Margaret, who is preoccupied with sheltering her special daughter. When the lovebirds become engaged, secrets are revealed and the true conflict arises: Does being in love require asking for help, and does releasing the past mean saying goodbye forever?

Tuesday’s performance had its faults: Andreas developed her accent midway through the first act, Henstock’s vocals were occasionally flat and the extended pauses sometimes became uncomfortable, as though lines had been forgotten. Regardless of these blemishes, the performance was average for an opening night.

The musical seems torn as to what genre it wishes to fill: There are elements of opera and classical music, and it is not strictly a drama or a comedy. Many songs are forgettable, save for “Statues and Stories,” in which Henstock’s voice is poised and self-assured, making up for the confidence her character lacked. She shines in her operatic moments. Burnham’s solo, “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” also stands out. The Italian melody itself is adequate enough, yet Burnham’s strong voice and accent are clear and accomplished.

Andreas’ voice, however, is better suited for recording than as a lead vocalist onstage. Her wavering vocals are difficult to hear due to her attempt at a contemplative emotion as her character finds liberation in letting go.

The passions in Piazza are implausible-admittedly due, in part, to our American desensitization. The trouble with the musical is that it does not even have a shot at persuading us that two such dissimilar individuals could so smoothly fall in love abroad. The childish make-believe of the plot handicaps its appeal to a desensitized audience. Yet, the composer continues to defend his work: “We’re all arrested right at the cusp of romantic awareness,” Guettel told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “that moment when we reach for the real thing. Whatever we hoped for, whatever we regret . we don’t forget it. And to me, those longings feel musical.”

The distinct longing that was experienced Tuesday evening was the desire for the drawn-out puppy love story to end.