Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Luminous "Light in the Piazza" Shines at the Station

Every few years, somebody bemoans the death of the American musical. And then something new and different comes along, something like "The Light in the Piazza," and it seems the musical is healthier and more creative than ever.

It's Adam Guettel's score that sets "The Light in the Piazza" apart. It's not the fizzy pop of "The Producers" or "Spamalot," or the angsty pop-rock of "Spring Awakening." Instead, Guettel wrote music that sounds more classical, more operatic, while at the same time hugely romantic and melodically unexpected. His lyrics are unexpected, too, as his characters don't necessarily say all that they're feeling, but sing in fragments. And sing in Italian!

Guettel's music and lyrics are perfect for this story, where communication with words is often difficult for its characters, but somehow, they find a way to get across what's in their hearts. There's a language barrier because the plot involves a very American mother and her curiously naive daughter who take a trip to Italy in 1953. The mother, Margaret, wants to revisit the churches, the paintings and the statues she saw years ago, when she was first married. But her daughter, lovely, sweet Clara, is looking for something else. She wants... Something. Something she can't quite touch in "this land of naked marble boys."

At Lincoln Center in 2005, in a production that won six Tony Awards, Clara's hat blows away in a windy piazza, and a handsome young Italian man leaps and miraculously catches it, also catching Clara's heart. Urbana's Station Theater does not have the space for hats to fly around, so director Michael John Foster and scenic designer Rachel Witt-Callahan have transformed the hat into an umbrella that recurs as a motif throughout the play. It's not as magical, to be sure, but it's very clever and it works quite well.

Witt-Callahan's set is lovely all around, transforming the Station's black box into a lush Italian mural, with several artfully placed café tables around the edge of the playing space, and minor set pieces that get whisked on and off to create a dining room or a hotel room. Witt-Callahan also did the lighting design, which contributes to the romantic mood. All in all, her contributions create the right backdrop and keep the action flowing, no small feat.

Director Foster has double-cast some of the major roles, so you may not see the actors who performed on opening night, but let's hope the second cast is equally good. I saw Hannah Kramer as Margaret and Brenna Pfeifer as Clara, and they were both wonderful, with full, expressive voices and excellent acting choices. Pfeifer is especially good at making Clara seem young and impetuous, but also appealing. You want her to get the boy she wants, even when that seems impossible.

Corbin Dixon is the one and only Fabrizio, the boy, a role originated on Broadway by Matthew Morrison, of "Glee" fame. Dixon has a terrific voice, too, and he shows a knack for making it clear what Fabrizio is saying even when it's in Italian.

I also enjoyed David Barkley and Jodi L. Prosser as Fabrizio's understanding parents, and Doug Balkin and Stevie Schein as his shallow brother and unhappy sister-in-law. Schein gets some real barn-burners in terms of songs, and she definitely sets them on fire.

There are stories that audiences walked out at intermission of the Lincoln Center production because they didn't understand the Italian or didn’t get the story or wanted more accessible, hummable music. After seeing the Celebration Company production, I find that hard to believe. The audience seemed to be hanging on every song and every plot turn, eager to find out what would happen next, to discover whether Clara and Fabrizio have a future, whether Margaret will see her own "light" in the piazza, whether either of them can do what it takes to be happy.

This "Light in the Piazza" is a lovely show and a magical moment for the Station Theater.

Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book by Craig Lucas

The Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., Urbana

Director: Michael John Foster
Scenic Designer: Rachel Witt-Callahan
Musical Director: Dolly Jy-Yu Hsu
Arranger and Assistant Musical Director: Alex Zelck Smith
Costume Designer: Malia Andrus
Sound Designer: Kevin Bourassa
Lighting Designer: Rachel Witt-Callahan
Stage Manager: Yen Vi Ho

Cast: Doug Balkin, David Barkley, Zach Benner, Jessica Coburn, Cara Day, Corbin Dixon, Dawn Harris, Lyle Jackson, Hannah Kramer, Gabe Llano, Lincoln Machula, Nancy Nichols, Brenna Pfeifer, Jodi L. Prosser, Stevie Schein, Conrad Scholer, Stephanie Swearingen.

Musicians: Dolly Hsu (Conductor), Alex Smith, Beth Youngblood, Rachel King, Katie Heinricher, Christina Antosiak, Katherine Floes, Tommy Howie, David Zych.

Running time: 2:05, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: Wednesdays through Sundays, April 13-30, at 8 pm.

Reservations: 217-384-4000

Note: This review originally ran in the Champaign News-Gazette on April 10, 2011.


  1. I'm so glad theaters around the country are doing this. I remember I saw that Lincoln Center production in previews, and nothing prepared me for the way I fell in love with it. I was almost in a haze from start to finish, the music and the production just put me in a dreamlike state such as I've experienced with nothing else.

    Dare I ask: How big an orchestra did they have?

  2. I don't honestly know. I don't believe the orchestra members were listed in the program (although I may be wrong about that, and I will certainly check when I can locate the program) but they were separated from us by a curtain, and the only person we saw was the conductor, who stepped out from behind the curtain to take applause. I also cannot believe I did not list a Musical Director, who was mostly likely that person behind the curtain.

    Hope I can find the program! It certainly sounded like a decent-sized orchestra.

  3. I fixed the post to include the orchestra and conductor.

  4. we had a keyboard player (accordian), aux. percussion/2nd keys player, cello, and violin every performance and most also had a clarinet player. They weren't always the same musician from night to night.

  5. Thanks for the correction, Stephanie. I went with the credits listed in the program, but I am happy to give credit where credit is due.