Theo’s Latest “Light” Brightly Shines

No one merely watches, attends or patronizes musicals produced by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.

Instead, audiences experience performance at the 50-ish-seat Rogers Park No Exit Café.

The company’s 35th show since forming in 1997, the critically-acclaimed, Goodman Theatre-rooted, “The Light in the Piazza,” delivers this experiential component brightly. Key themes, coming-of-age and maternal protection, are explored with interesting twists against the backdrops of Florence and Rome.

The novella by Elizabeth Spencer, set to music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, grew up in Chicago in 2004 before heading to Broadway, where it was nominated for a Best Musical Tony (ultimately finishing as a runner-up to “Spamalot”).

North Shore-bred, Chicago playwright, Steve Peterson (“The Invasion of Skokie”), seen in attendance during the Theo run’s first week, calls “Piazza,” “the best musical I’ve seen in the past several years.” He is the latest musical-theater sophisticate (Broadway legend Tommy Tune and “Chicago Tribune” theater critic Chris Jones among them) to profess unabashed adoration for this material.

No way this production changes their opinion. There must be at least 50 ways to mess up a production of “Piazza;” Theo didn’t fall into any of the traps.
The story of North Carolina mother-daughter tourists is enhanced by the smartly-displayed, functional unit set. And as daughter Clara falls in love with Italian suitor Fabrizio, bringing angst to mother Margaret, the acting and singing talents of these three leads and their terrific ensemble fully transport the audience into shared experience, as if taking place at an Italian sidewalk café..

Of these, Justin Adair’s Fabrizio deserves extra plaudits. His operatic voice and extraordinarily believable Italian (“Il Mondo Era Vuoto” and “Passeggiata”) do more to enhance this production than any other single element. Indeed, the entire ensemble’s ability to be convincingly Italian illustrates the professionalism of the company and ought to make community theatre producers think twice before tackling this ambitious show.

To be sure, Kelli Harrington’s Margaret (“Fable”), Rachel Klippel’s Clara (title song) and Michael Kingston as Fabrizio’s father, Signor Nacarelli, (with Harrington in Let’s Walk”) are bright lights in their own right.

But perhaps the greatest luminaries of this production are co-directors Fred Anzevino (Theo’s artistic director) and Brenda Didier. They get more out of a small black box inconveniently nestled against rumbling “L” tracks than anyone not named Fred Anzevino would think possible.

So even for those who prefer musicals with greater mass audience appeal and accessibility (read: less songs in Italian), this is a production to experience in a new, Ubique way.

Theo Ubique
(pronounced thee-oh oo-bah-kway) is a combination of Greek and Latin reflecting the company’s mission to engage actors and audiences in and intimate conversation with great musical and theatrical works. “The Light in the Piazza”continues through April 29 at No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm. Tickets are $29-$34 (group, student and senior discounts available) and may be purchased by phone (800-595-4849) or online at Dinner packages for an additional $20 are also offered.