Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Liz Lauren.
It would be worth seeing The Light in the Piazza at Lyric Opera just to hear Renée Fleming sing, but the new production (actually put on by Scenario Two, a new company) offers so much more that this revival of the Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel musical is one of the finest shows of the year. From the excellence of the star to the wonderful cast that surrounds her to the thirty-piece orchestra conducted by Kimberly Grigsby to the design team that helped to shape this show for the Lyric’s space, every element of this production comes together to make it a joyous theatrical and musical experience.
Director Daniel Evans’ cast couldn’t be stronger. Fleming stars as Margaret Johnson, a mother from Winston-Salem on a tour of Italy with her 26-year-old daughter Clara (Solea Pfeiffer), a lovely young woman whose mental and emotional abilities were adversely affected by an accident when she was young. Margaret, who has returned to the sites of her honeymoon to try to remind herself of the spark that once existed in her marriage, watches over Clara as one would watch over a child; she knows that her daughter might experience a meltdown if she gets over-stimulated. However, Clara might be “younger than her age,” as Margaret says, but her libido shows every minute of her 26 years, and when she has a chance meeting with a sweet young Florentine named Fabrizio (Rob Houchen), sparks she doesn’t even recognize fly everywhere.
Fleming’s and Pfeiffer’s voices blend beautifully, soaring above the complex, textured orchestrations in the opening song and drawing us in. Each of them also has lovely solo moments, such as Fleming’s haunting “Dividing Day” and Pfeiffer’s “The Light in the Piazza.” But the show wouldn’t work if the young lovers did not fit together just as well, and Houchen’s rich tenor works perfectly with Pfeiffer’s lovely soprano to create the impression of two innocent people falling in love. They fit so well together both vocally and visually that it’s impossible not to root for them to succeed, though we know that Margaret has not revealed the truth about Clara to Fabrizio and his family.
As to that, Fleming’s Margaret clearly loves her daughter and wishes to protect her from possible harm as well as protecting the family who would unknowingly inherit the role of Clara’s caretaker as well as becoming her in-laws. But a large part of Margaret’s problem seems to stem from her own failing marriage and her desperate need to hold on to the one constant in her life, her daughter. Fleming walks this line carefully, adding layers of depth to her character, visible especially when she tries several times to explain Clara to Fabrizio’s father (Alex Jennings, lending an easy-natured gravitas to the role).
Robert Jones’ set design is a lovely, curving interpretation of a Florentine piazza and provides lots of levels. Evans uses it well, moving characters around both within and outside of its confines to create the ebb and flow of a 1953 street scene as well as some outstanding stage pictures. (His repeated use of a scooter, though, would have worked better if he had stopped after its first appearance.)
Whether you are unfamiliar with The Light in the Piazza, as I was, or have been a fan since its 2004 workshopping at the Goodman, I am confident that you will enjoy this version. The show (perfect for the Lyric because it is a sort of hybrid between opera and musical) features themes familiar to pretty much any parent who both loves and worries about their children…which is pretty much all of us. This show is only playing for a very limited run in the midst of the hectic holiday season, but it is well worth the trip downtown for this glorious production.
The Light in the Piazza is now playing at Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark, Chicago, IL, until Dec 29. The show runs approximately 65 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.