An intimate 'Light' shines in Rogers Park

THEATER REVIEW: "The Light in the Piazza" by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Cafe ★★★★

 Rachel Kippel in the musical  "The Light in the Piazza" at Theo Ubique.

Rachel Kippel in the musical "The Light in the Piazza" at Theo Ubique. (March 7, 2012)

Kelli Harrington, the little-known actress playing Margaret Johnson in Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier's deftly sung, intensely intimate, astutely staged and very moving little production of the Adam Guettel musical "The Light in the Piazza," is currently delivering one of the best performances of the year on a Chicago stage. And Rachel Klippel, the raw but honest young singer playing Margaret's mentally challenged daughter, is not too far behind.

So lovely and sensorial are these twin pieces of acting — in a story of a miserably married, all-American mother risking everything for a vulnerable young woman's romantic happiness in sensual post-war Italy — they make you feel like the rude sounds of a Rogers Park street, not to mention the brutal staccato squawks of the Morse Red Line stop, both located just a few feet on the other side of the tiny Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, are merely chimes of conversation oozing in from some Florentine cafe.

I approached this particular production last weekend with unusual trepidation. If they mess up "The Light in the Piazza," I thought to myself, I'm never going back. That was churlish; this is a technically demanding show in every way. But although Theo Ubique has always paid far more attention than its peers to the quality of the singing, many is the storefront non-Equity musical where the singing is not all it needs to be. As I'm often reminded, when the budget is low, it can be hard to find the talent for a show as hard to sing as this one.

But Theo Ubique, which employs a mostly young cast that comes with plenty of cumulative operatic training, did not mess it up. On the contrary, Anzevino and his fine cast and quartet of live musicians (three strings, including a harp, and one piano, which is perfect for this space and score) reveal things I've never seen, and made me feel things I've never felt before. Even though I've seen this show seven times, and the exquisite Guettel score constantly plays in my home.

Any review by me of this particular musical, based on a New Yorker short story by Elizabeth Spencer, directed on Broadway by Bartlett Sher, and previously seen in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre (a very early incarnation), the Auditorium Theatre (the superb first national tour starring Christine Andreas) and the Marriott Theatre (a well-acted but awkwardly staged production) requires an up-front disclosure. I'm not alone in what arguably borders on obsession (both Richard Greenberg and Tommy Tune, no less, have confessed to repeated visits to see Sher's Lincoln Center production), but you should know my singular love of this material.

Why is it thus? The melodies are so, so beautiful; the lyrics so richly intelligent; the emotions so delicate but potent; and the stakes, which involve a parent trying to navigate the treacherous waters between protecting a needy child and letting her find her own happiness, are so profoundly exportable to other times and places. I could go on at length, but you get the idea. If you've already seen it, you'll understand.

And you must go back now. At the Auditorium, the amplified sound was muddy. Not here. These are just unaided human voices at Theo Ubique. Anzevino does not really have space to swing a bottle of Chianti, but his staging is not only fresh but wise. The extreme intimacy of this theater — the actors are literally inches away — means that the conversational tone of the musical is greatly intensified. Harrington's heart seems to throb right next to you — she could easily have done the national tour of this production and, frankly, she seems to have more at stake than did any of the prior fine actresses I've seen in this role. Klippel is playing a tricky role — her Clara, we're told, is different and troubled, but once you play to her disability, you're sunk.

An actress has to play her struggle and her zest for living, yet still make us see that she is unconventional. So it goes here. Klippel's all-in performance oozes immaturity, uncertainty, sensuality and hope, in all the right ways.

There are two other notable assets in this universally fine cast: Justin Adair's Fabrizio, Clara's love interest, has no false Italianate bravado (another trap), but a surfeit of neediness and optimism, each potently voiced. And Elizabeth Lanza, who plays the more comedic Italian wife in the piece, adds a searingly honest edge to the typically broad character.

This is Theo Ubique's most accomplished production to date and a formidable storefront achievement. I won't add anything more about the material.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through April 29

Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $29-$34 (pre-show dinner is available for $20) at 773-347-1109 or theo-u.com

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