Students and faculty at the Department of Music are being joined by industry professionals for their upcoming production of “The Light in the Piazza.”
The production is a 2005 musical created by Craig Lucas and composer Adam Guettel, a UM faculty guest artist.
The plot follows the Florence-based summertime romance between Clara Johnson, daughter of a wealthy southern family, and Fabrizio, a young Italian man. The play chronicles their relationship as secrets and conflicts arise between their families.
The musical is directed by Blake McIver Ewing, the UM Opera Theatre’s artist-in-residence. Actress Mary Donnelly Haskell plays Margaret, Clara’s mother.
“Having the two professionals work with our students is unprecedented as far as I’ve been here,” Professor Amanda Johnston, Music Director for the upcoming performance, said. “It’s very exciting to watch the students interact with them, learn from them and be inspired by them.”
The musical is based on a 1960 novella written by Elizabeth Spencer, a Mississippi author. A storyteller entrenched in the South for much of her early career, “Light in the Piazza” broke from her usual style and drew from her own two-year stay in Italy during the 1950s.
“The show hasn’t been done a lot in the South,” Ewing said. “I think it’s special bringing the story back to Mississippi, and for a lot of people having it be their first time.”
The show will be directed by Ewing, who has performed in several televisions shows, plays and movies, such as “Full House,” “Hey Arnold” and a previous production of “The Light in the Piazza.” During his time with the production, he starred as Fabrizio, the play’s male lead.
“I always come back to the theater,” Ewing said. “It’s my first love. Any time I get the chance to return to something like this, it doesn’t matter whether I’m in Oxford, Mississippi or on Broadway. I always get so passionate about it.”
As a musical performance, extra considerations must be made and put into practice to thread the line between keeping performers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and making sure they are able to improve their technique to the fullest. Having already gone a year in lockdown, different performers have found their own solutions. Some use masks designed specifically for singing, which include an expanded inside pocket. Others adjust their singing style itself to fit the mask.
“As a singer, breathing is everything,” senior Isaiah Traylor, who plays the male lead Fabrizio, said. “When we performed last semester with masks it changed a lot. You have to ensure you have a deep enough breath and there are moments where a good breath may not have happened because of the mask.”
Both Traylor and Johnston emphasized the challenges it brought to expression. When wearing a mask, it severely limits the singer’s ability to visually emote, leaving only their eyes to pull the heavy lifting.
While several precautions still linger over the cast, the rules have gotten more lenient in the past few months. In the previous year, many productions had to limit themselves to 30-minute practice sessions in alternating rooms to reduce the possibility of infection as much as possible.
Johnston remembers the stressful atmosphere as well as the effect it had on her colleagues.
“I worked in three different rooms at the same time last semester,” Johnston said. “I would work with one student for 30 minutes, then half an hour later move to another room to meet with another one or two people. A lot of my colleagues chose to teach on Zoom because they weren’t able to cover the music sufficiently in 30 minutes.”
Despite the challenges, Ewing has enjoyed working with the students in this new rendition of the play. Tackling it like a legitimate Broadway show, Ewing has reconstructed several parts of the process for the students, including audition workshops and professionally structured rehearsals.
As the students build their own interpretations of the characters, however, Ewing has been careful to let them have their own process of discovery and let the story be theirs.
“As the director the best thing I can do is get out of the way,” Ewing said. “It’s been wonderful to work with Isaiah and see him find his truth through the role.”
Composer Adam Guettel, director Blake Ewing and actress-singer Mary Donnelly Haskell will have a conversation about “The Light in the Piazza” at noon Wednesday, Nov. 3, in Paris-Yates Chapel.
The show will premiere on Nov. 19 at 7:30, with a second showing on Nov. 21 at 3 p.m. Tickets are on sale for both showings at the Ford Center, over the phone at (662) 915-7411 or on the Ford Center’s website.