Chicago Theater Review: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (Theo Ubique in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on May 21, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The Light in the Piazza opened on March 12 at Theo Ubique and has now been extended into midsummer, and counting. It’s gathered a sheaf of rave reviews and the tiny theater is sold out by the week, possibly the most improbable local hit in recent memory. It’s not that we don’t expect quality work from Theo Ubique. The company has carved out a respected niche for itself, mostly in revues celebrating significant American composers (and yet, their production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew would have honored the stage of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater). But The Light in the Piazza (2005) is a Tony-winning full-scale Broadway musical, and a previous visitor at both Lincolnshire’s popular in-the-Round Marriott Theatre and Chicago’s giant Auditorium Theatre. There may have been some concern that Theo Ubique was rashly stepping up in class. Not a bit of it.

After the first 10 minutes the audience knows the show is in good hands. By the end of the evening, spectators should be convinced that the only way to do and see The Light in the Piazza is on a stage about the size of a large suburban home patio. It all happens through a miraculous blend of beautiful singing, pinpoint character casting, and directing that raises intimacy to a new plateau.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Light in the Piazza at Theo Ubique in ChicagoThe Light in the Piazza is an adaptation of a novel about a Georgia woman and her daughter touring Florence and Rome during the 1950’s. Margaret Johnson and her 26-year old daughter Clara accidentally encounter an eager young Florentine named Fabrizio, who immediately takes an intense liking to Clara; she returns the regard in a dual case of Love At First Sight. So far the story has the makings of a nice romantic soap opera, whether or not the American and Italian youngsters unite or ruefully separate and return to their own cultures. But there is a twist to this story. Fourteen years ago in their hometown of Atlanta, Clara suffered a head injury that stopped her emotional and intellectual growth at the age of 12 while her physical body continued to mature into her 20’s. Fabrizio loves Clara, unaware that he loves a mentally-adolescent girl. And Clara doesn’t know she is different, just that her parents seem over protective.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Light in the Piazza at Theo Ubique in Chicago

Margaret tries to steer her daughter away from a match she feels is hopeless but neither Clara nor Fabrizio want to be denied. At the same time, Margaret is enduring a loveless marriage with an indifferent husband who has stayed in the U.S. for business. The husband, learning of the romance, wants to jump on the first plane to rescue their daughter from disaster. Margret is inclined to let the relationship play out. She’s tired of saying no to Clara. This likely is the young woman’s final chance for happiness and the mother is willing to let the dice role. The resolution is well worth waiting for.

Fabrizio’s family supplies the bulk of the supporting characters. The father is a droll man who operates a necktie store in Florence and rules his home as a benevolent dictator; the mother is a typical Italian hausfrau; and Giuseppe is Fabrizio’s brother, married to the tempestuous Franca, who bridles loudly at her husband’s infidelities. The audience spends much time with this lively and sympathetic family, and while they speak Italian throughout the musical, patrons will have no difficulty following the dialogue, Italian being the expressive language that it is.

Kelli Harrington gives a performance of subtly and depth as Margaret Johnson and she sings wonderfully. This is the role that pulls the entire show together and Harrington’s warmth and humanity in the face of wrenching domestic strains is masterful. Rachel Klippel brings a large trained voice to the role of Clara but it’s Klippel’s acting that quietly dazzles. It’s quite a feat to convince viewers that the attractive woman they see really has the mind of a 12-year old at war with the desires of an adult.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Light in the Piazza at Theo Ubique in Chicago

The Italian family is animated and contentious in the true Italian manner, at least as we see them in movies and plays, but there are no caricatures and no patronizing for easy laughs on stage at the No Exit Café. They are a delightful group as portrayed by Justin Adair (Fabrizio), Pavi Proczko (Giuseppe), Elizabeth Lanza (Franca), Denise Tamburrino (the mother), and above all Michael Kingston (the majestic and ultimately wise father). John Leen turns in a couple of strong cameo appearances as Margaret’s husband, trying by transatlantic telephone to stamp out a romantic conflagration he sees leading to catastrophe. William Aaron and Christin Boulette, who make up the ensemble, match the extraordinarily powerful vocals of the leads.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Light in the Piazza at Theo Ubique in ChicagoCo-directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier have orchestrated the production so realistically that the charming love story looks and sounds inevitable. It’s difficult to underrate Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics and Craig Lucas’s book: the creators took a story that is perilously close to chick lit sentimentality, and adapted it into a memorable love story. Much of the show’s charm comes from the old world flavor of historic Florence and Rome. The Theo Ubique staging must rely on a single set composed of curved arches to replicate city plazas, streets, and the interior of Fabrizio’s home. The atmospheric set by Adam Veness bathed in golden light glow by lighting designer Michael Nardulli provides the perfect visual ambience for the story, further complemented by Bill Morey’s period costumes.

Call The Light in the Piazza the miracle of Glenwood Avenue. Eventually the show will have to close, but only when the theater administration calls a halt. There will be an audience for this musical until Theo Ubique decides to move on. And a significant percentage of that audience should be repeat customers.

photos by Adam Veness

The Light in the Piazza
Theo Ubique at the No Exit Café
ends on July 14, 2012
for tickets, call 773 347 1109 or visit Theo-Ubique

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago


Michael Kingston July 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Thank you for the kind words and wonderful review, Dan.
Just wanted to point out that Elizabeth’s last name is Lanza, not Lana.

Editor-in-Chief Tony Frankel July 13, 2012 at 1:54 am

Thanks, Michael, the change has been made.

I agree with Dan. It was a marvelous production.

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