Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Light in the Piazza
Lyric Opera of Chicago
by John Olson|Season Schedule

Solea Pfeiffer and Renée Fleming
Photo by Liz Lauren
Since 2013, Lyric Opera of Chicago has presented full-scale productions of musicals from Broadway as a sort of bonus offering in their seasons of mostly 19th century European operas. Dubbed "Broadway at Lyric," these shows have been among the company's most popular events, but beyond the marketing benefits of bringing such well-known and much-loved titles to the 3,500-seat Lyric Opera House, this programming has artistic justification as well. If opera was the most popular musical theatre genre of the 19th century in Western culture, surely musical theatre surpassed the popularity of that art form in the 20th century. And even if arts lovers and philanthropists sought to preserve 19th century opera works in the 20th century through the opening of the majestic Lyric Opera House in 1929 and the founding of Lyric Opera of Chicago in the mid-1950s, isn't it time to acknowledge the change in musical theatre preferences and recognize the durability of so many musical theater classics?

A 2012 production of 1927's Show Boat began to make the case for Lyric productions of Broadway musicals, and upon the urging and guidance of soprano Renée Fleming, the company committed to a series of annual stagings of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, beginning with Oklahoma! in 2013. This evolved into the current "Broadway at Lyric" effort, which has grown to include classics beyond the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog, and has included My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar, and in spring 2020, West Side Story. Each of these musicals, from Show Boat through West Side Story, lent themselves to the grand opera tradition: large casts, elaborate production values, big orchestras and a considerable amount of dance, often involving a ballet corps. And certainly, some 50 to 75 years after their first productions, they'd earned the status of classics.

Lyric's expansion into musical plays continues with its presentation of The Light in the Piazza, a staging directed by Daniel Evans and first performed in London in summer 2019 and then in Los Angeles in October. The Light in the Piazza, though, with its cast of 18 and a delicate score requiring a much smaller orchestra, has more in common with chamber opera than grand opera. One might wonder how well it plays in a 3,500-seat opera house. The answer, happily, as done here, it fits quite pleasingly. For one thing, the first and upper balconies are closed—seats are sold for just the main floor and the mezzanine—keeping audience proximity to the stage to a reasonable distance. The sound is amplified beautifully for the hall by sound designer Kai Harada. The delicate orchestrations employing mainly strings and winds are played by just 30 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and they carry perfectly through the 2,500 or so seats of the main floor and up into the mezzanine boxes. The unit set by Robert Jones, one of the London West End's top designers, nicely fills the huge Lyric Opera stage without dwarfing the performers. Two overlapping arcs of buildings suggestive of Florence's many piazzas, surround a playing area that, with minimal propping, serves as the stage for scenes inside homes and a hotel room, and among the ruins of Rome. A painted disc above the stage suggests an Italian cathedral dome.

To no one's surprise, and hence this burying of the lede to the fourth paragraph, the performances are wonderful, beginning with Renée Fleming as Margaret Johnson, the American woman who accompanies her 26-year-old daughter on a tour of Italy. Surprisingly, given her role in encouraging and consulting on Lyric's expansion into musical theatre, this is Ms. Fleming's first appearance in a musical at Lyric. The opportunity to hear a world class soprano in such a vocally demanding role is irresistible. Ms. Fleming makes a convincing North Carolinian of means, even if she seems to overcome her resistance to Clara's coupling with Fabrizio a bit too easily.

She is joined by an equally impressive cast, including Britain's Alex Jennings, Rob Houchen, Marie McLaughlin and Malcolm Sinclair of the London cast. For this stop on a tour that will include a stay in Sydney, Australia, next August, Margaret's mildly developmentally disabled daughter Clara is played by Solea Pfeiffer, a young musical theater veteran who has already played such roles as Eva Peron and West Side Story's Maria. Pfeiffer and Houchen make an appealingly innocent young couple, whose simple and honest love melt the away the barriers their parents find in the idea of the two marrying. Jennings is a charming and wise father of Houchen's Fabrizio. Famed for his acting in classical and popular works alike, he handles the vocal demands quite admirably.

Craig Lucas's book, adapting Piazza from Elizabeth Spencer's novel, has a fair amount of spoken dialogue between Adam Guettel's 20 songs, and the production is as satisfying in its storytelling as in its musicianship. Even so, the music is the main distinction of The Light in the Piazza, and this musical's inclusion in the programming of as esteemed an opera company as Lyric is a mark of its recognition as a significant and enduring work of musical theatre. Just as importantly, it marks Lyric's first production of a 21st century musical play and shows how the company can remain relevant in the decades ahead.

The Light in the Piazza runs through December 29, 2019, at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago IL. For tickets and information, visit