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Theater Review (Chicago Area): The Light in the Piazza

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Love conquers much. It transcends language, culture, pushy and overly protective parents. It overcomes mis-communication and lack of communication. The Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre in north-suburban Chicago is staging a production of The Light in the Piazza that hits these tropes in nearly operatic style (literally). 

Winner of six Tony Awards during its 2005-2006 Broadway run, Piazza is based on Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella. With book by Craig Lucas and lyrics and music by Adam Guettel, Piazza is set during the summer of 1953 in Florence, Italy.

American tourist Margaret Johnson (Mary Ernster) brings her adult daughter Clara (Summer Smart) on a summer holiday to Florence, a romantic place she and her husband enjoyed in the days before World War II. Margaret wants to show Clara all the history and art the city has to offer. Clara is more interested in the people, particularly Fabrizio Naccarelli (Max Quinlan), a young man she meets in the piazza.

The two young people are almost mystically drawn to each other, but something causes Margaret to try to keep Clara from getting involved with Fabrizio. Is it their differing cultures and languages? Is it that he's Italian and she's a southern American? Or is there something else? The answer is revealed gradually through the show's two and half hours.

Piazza opens with a pair of young lovers dancing in a piazza: a dream-like pas de deux. The couple weave silently in an out throughout the story, metaphorically representing love, romance—and the possibilities that lie ahead for Fabrizio and Clara.

Each of the other couples—Clara's parents, Fabrizio's, his brother Giuseppe (Alexander Aguilar) and sister-in law Franca (Jennifer T. Grubb)—seem also to symbolize love and relationships at various stages of blossom and deterioration. Who is to say for sure what will lead to a lifelong romance, and what to one that erodes over time and missed opportunities?

In a sense, it's a conventional tale: boy meets girl, boy loses girl…you know the rest, if you've ever seen a musical. But Piazza has a few surprising left turns here and there to keep you guessing exactly why Margaret is so resistant to Clara's involvement with the young Fabrizio. And for the observant theater-goer there is much happening beneath the surface amongst all the principles to make this just as easily a cautionary tale about love and relationships.

The Tony Award-winning musical score is lush and the orchestrations evoke classic musical theater with the grace notes of light opera. There are no "show-stoppers," songs you leave the theater singing; however, the lyrics do a fine job of conveying the narrative for the most part. Some of the songs are in Italian, so the overall performance during those numbers is as important as the singing to convey their emotion and narrative.

Most of that pressure falls on Quinlan, whose powerful voice is extraordinary in the role of Fabrizio. In his numbers you feel his desperation, his earnest love, and his despair. The rest of the cast is equally strong, and their classically-trained voices are up to the difficult, nearly operatic score.

Staging theater in-the-round presents its own challenges, since most musical theater is originally produced for conventional proscenium (frontal) performance. The set design here is stark compared with other productions, with only hints of the ancient beauty of Florence: column and statue fragments logistically placed to create clean sight lines for the audience. The intimacy of this type of staging comes at a slight cost in the production's look; perhaps it's a fair exchange.

Veteran Marriott Theatre director Joe Leonardo does a nice job in the setting, although the strenuous task of directing the dialogue to a four-sided audience makes the pace seem more frantic (particularly in the asides) than the story sometimes suggests.

Piazza is well worth the trek out to the suburbs for a fine summer's evening of theater. The Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre is located in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I highly recommend this production, which continues through September 20.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.