Entertainment » Theatre

The Light in the Piazza

by Robert Bullen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Aug 5, 2009
Summer Smart (left) and Max Quinlan star in the Tony Award-winning musical "The Light in the Piazza," currently at the Marriott Theatre.
Summer Smart (left) and Max Quinlan star in the Tony Award-winning musical "The Light in the Piazza," currently at the Marriott Theatre.   

For the next seven weeks, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire has traded in their typical musical comedy fare for a stunning new production of The Light in the Piazza, featuring a landmark performance from Chicago leading lady, Mary Ernster.

Based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer, Piazza is set in Florence in the summer of 1953. While Margaret Johnson and her beautiful young daughter Clara are on vacation, Clara fatefully crosses paths with Fabrizio - a passionate, young Italian. Much to her mother's well-founded dismay, Clara and Fabrizio fall desperately in love - to the point that Margaret has to make a tough choice about her daughter's future.

Piazza's roots stem from Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where the show warmed up before opening at New York City's Lincoln Center in 2005 to overwhelming critical praise. The show won six Tony Awards, including Best Original Score.

I would venture to say Adam Guettel's sweeping, sophisticated score is one of the most unapologetically gorgeous works to come along since West Side Story. It's full of rich, twisting harmonies that send chills up your spine. And, as much as people might say the music is "too complex," it's extremely accessible - and this cast serves the material wonderfully.

As Clara, Summer Smart (what a name!) is simply ravishing. With a floating soprano, Smart delivers the deceptively difficult title song effortlessly. She is well matched by the golden-voiced Max Quinlan, who plays her handsome Italian suitor. Quinlan nearly stops this show with his first act aria, "Il Mondo Era Vuoto." It's not difficult to see why these two fall for each other so hard on first sight.

The main reason to trek up to Lincolnshire is to see Mary Ernster as Margaret, who’s giving a subtle, masterful performance.

Gene Weygandt and Paula Scrofano bring poise, passion and class as Fabrizio's parents. And as eternally bickering young newlyweds, Alexander Aguilar and a feisty Jennifer T. Grubb add some fiery Italian heat.

However, above all this, the main reason to trek up to Lincolnshire is to see Mary Ernster as Margaret, who's giving a subtle, masterful performance that slowly gains momentum as the events around her start spinning out of control. Her struggle and fluster in doing "the right thing" versus "the sensible thing" are heartbreakingly conveyed in her face, voice and mannerisms. Ernster's delivery of the bittersweet final number "Fable" will make you love the theatre all over again. And, as many who are familiar with Ernster's work would expect, it's flawlessly sung.

My only pain point, which grew as the evening wore on, is Marriott's sound design. The orchestra, while very good, was enclosed in a glass booth behind the audience. The sound is unevenly mixed with the vocals and piped out, quite loudly at times, through tinny speakers. For a show like Piazza, the orchestra should be allowed to breathe, not corked up in some room. In this case, subtlety is sacrificed for volume.

Director Joe Leonardo's vertiginous staging maintains dramatic tension while allowing moments for rapture and enlightenment. I applaud the set and lighting designs by Tom Ryan and Diane Williams respectively, which do everything possible to transform Marriott's dark void of a stage into sunny Florence.

The Light in the Piazza runs through September 20 at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill. For more information, visit www.MarriottTheatre.com

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at chitheatreaddict.com


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