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THEATER REVIEW The Light in the Piazza
by Karen Topham
2019-12-16

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Playwright: Book by Craig Lucas; music/lyrics by Adam Guettel

At: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr. ( a Scenario Two production ). Tickets: lyricopera.org . Price: $35-219. Runs through: Dec. 29

It would be worth seeing The Light in the Piazza at Lyric Opera just to hear Renee Fleming sing.

However, 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 cast to the 30-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 Winston-Salem mother 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. 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. But a large part of Margaret's problem stems 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 ).

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 any parent who both loves and worries about their children...which is pretty much all of us. It's 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.


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