Luminous, moving and anchored by a young male lead who truly captures the giddy/awful/giddy intoxication of falling in love, Theo Ubique's The Light in the Piazza is the most emotionally intimate and swooningly joyful staging of the production we’ve seen. (And not that we’re keeping track, but before Theo Ubique’s staging, we were in the audience for both of the musical’s big-budget Equity versions that have played Chicago.)
Part of the production’s success comes from the physical space the story inhabits. Director Fred Anzevino has a long and solid track record of re-shaping big Broadway musicals to fit in the postage-stamp sized space at the No Exit Café. He’s outdone himself here, reconfiguring the space to put the audience in the romantic heart of a Florentine piazza. The fact that the cast is rarely more than arm’s length away from the audience means ticket-holders are placed at the glorious emotional core of the story.
A space this small erases the buffer of distance that a more traditional staging comes with. When you can look the actors in the eyes, those eyes have to honestly reflect the desires of the characters. It’s one thing to project those desires from a stage set so far back nobody onstage can clearly see who is watching them. It’s quite another to pull that off when the audience is literally part of the set. Theo Ubique pulls it off masterfully.
“You can almost hear what everyone is feeling,” says he mother of a smitten young Florentine midway through the first act. There’s no “almost “ about it. You can also see and actually feel what everyone is feeling- these ensemble members wear their hearts on their sleeves. That they do so without getting florid or falling into the tap of overdone schmacting is a testament to the group’s stellar talents and Anzevino’s astute direction.
Of course the most effective cast in the world can’t save a mediocre show. Happily, this collaboration by Adam Guettel (musicand lyrics) and Craig Lucas (book)is anything but mediocre. The story of Margaret Johnson, an American woman abroad with her daughter Clara, is achingly lovely. On one level, it’s a fairly traditional love story as Clara and Fabrizio, a young man she encounters in the piazza, fall in love-at-first-sight. Their pure, unashamed ebullience stands in sharp contrast to Margaret’s own marriage.
Speaking via long-distance to her long-absent husband Roy, Margaret reveals a loveless union – or at least a union wherein the spouses have long ago forgotten how to be in love. When Margaret sees unabashed, unfiltered joy radiating from Clara and Fabrizio, she’s initially suspicious and alarmed. She (and Roy) equate love not with happiness but with getting badly hurt. And without divuolging a key plot point, we’ll say that Clara has been hurt – badly – before. Margaret is determined not to let her daughter suffer again. Whether she can let go and allow Clara to soar – and perhaps fall – on her own forms the primary tension in Light in the Piazza.
With music direction by Jeremy Ramey, , Guettel’s gorgeous score soars. If music came in colors, Light in the Piazza would sound like shimmering sunrise gold and the rich, romantic purples of twilight. Its vocals are performed to near perfection by the cast,
As Fabrizio, Justin Adair is relatively unprepossessing at the onset – but once he starts singing, it’s impossible not to understand why Clara has fallen so impetuously in love with him. Adair’s delivery of “Aiutomi” (The Italian for “help me”) is a highlight of the show, both sonically and emotionally. Adair throws himself into the desperation of the song so completely it’s dizzying. He is the embodiment of the two sides of being in love – being anguished beyond compare yet also reveling in the deliciousness of passion.
Also fantastic is Kelli Harrington as Margaret Johnson. In “Dividing Day,” she’s a beautiful portrait of searching and loss. Trying to determine precisely where and when her marriage became leached of passion, her voice fills the room with wonder and sorrow. As Clara, Rachel Klippel virtually glows with the blush of first, intoxicating love – and nicely captures Clara’s petulant, inconsolable unhappiness after her mother attempts to separate her from Fabrizio for good.
The supporting roles here are just as vivid. Elizabeth Lanza crackles with sensuality and the red-hot anger of a woman who knows she’s being cheated on but – much to her frustration – deeply loves her husband regardless. And as Fabrizio’s father, Michael Kingston manages to seem both benevolent and imperiously, annoyoingly patriarchal in arranging for his son’s happiness.
The Light in the Piazza plays out on Adam Veness’ graceful, columned set, an airy structure that completely evokes the old world charms of a Florence. Lighting designer Michael M. Nardulli is also indispensable, bathing the actors in sunshine and atmosphere.