The highly acclaimed and award winning musical, The Light in the Piazza, is set for an encore season at Malvern Theatre.

Director Alan Burrows expects this new season to be as warmly accepted as its forerunner at Lilydale Athenaeum Theatre which he describes as having been very successful with both critics and audiences  unanimous in their praise.

An undertaking such as this takes careful  planning in the areas of casting and design, admits Burrows, who worked closely with set designer  David Dare to ensure all was right for the shift to Malvern. "The stage at Malvern is smaller, both in depth and height, but only slightly in width," explains Burrows. "Panels in the set were made extendable for Lilydale and therefore easily reduced for Malvern.  Because of the rake on the stage at Lilydale the set was “jacked up” at Lilydale and now sits flat at Malvern. The “Crew” at Lilydale dismantled the set in a day, a large truck was hired and the entire set moved to Malvern in another day. It then took about three days to reconstruct it on the Malvern stage."

Lighting must also travel so Jason Bovaird’s design was carefully noted, with number, position of lamps, patch etc. Saving hours of work, the team transported the board from Lilydale with all the cues recorded and simply replicated the design and patching at Malvern.

Malvern and Lilydale are no strangers to this partnership having now shared a musical  three times. Cost, says Burrows, is a major factor for this amiable and mutually beneficial time share style arrangement. "For smaller companies that mainly do straight plays cost can sometimes be prohibitive," he says. "Costs are equally shared and technical people and costume personnel from both companies contribute.  Both companies like to schedule a small musical every couple of years and this arrangement has worked really for both companies and both are extremely happy. The demographic of audience is generally different and total numbers at each venue don’t suffer from the other doing the show."

The Light in the Piazza is based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the story is set in the 1950s and tells the story of Margaret Johnson, a wealthy Southern woman and her emotionally stalled daughter, Clara, who spend a summer together in Italy.  Clara falls in love with a young Italian man, forcing Margaret to reconsider not only Clara's future, but her own deep seated hopes and regrets. Burrows tells me this is not your usual musical: no big dance numbers; relatively small cast; the music by Adam Guettel is neo-classical and very difficult. Nevertheless Burrows was smitten describing the story and setting as beautiful. "The story though, a first look may appear simple yet it has layers and complexity to test the audience.  I had long admired the piece and could not understand why no-one had done a full scale production in Australia before; though it did receive a one night only concert performance at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre in 2008, directed by John O’May and featuring cast members from The Phantom of the Opera. It has won Tony Awards on Broadway in 2005 and has been described as “ground breaking” in its field. It was therefore the challenge that could not be resisted," Burrows says.

Directing a work like this does not come without its challenges with Burrows opting to tackle the project more like a play than a musical.  "The nuances of the acting through the complex music are what really challenge both director and actor," explains Burrows. "Establishing character and then developing them through circumstance, relationships both past and future and the general interaction of two cultures, American and Italian all heighten the complexity for direction and performance."

Other challenges involved creating a workable set. Burrows informs me that when it was originally staged in America it was at the Lincoln Center in New York, which has a huge stage, that allows for vast settings. This does not work for most stages that are accustomed to accommodating plays but a solution was in sight Burrows explains: "Research had shown me that the show could be done more simply and I struck up a relationship with a company that had done the show in Chicago in 2012 as a dinner theatre piece. It was through them that I discovered the reduced orchestration for piano, violin, viola, bass and harp, which we are using, that still has a full lush sound."

"The next step was serious discussions with David Dare our set designer.  We have done several “small” musicals before, including There’re Playing our Song which we had successfully fitted on to smaller stages.  David came up with an ingenious design that allowed the piece to take place on a single set. This was augmented by clever projections, subtle little changes, furniture and some wonderful lighting that Jason Bovaird was to provide."

Initially casting seemed to throw down the gauntlet as well admits Burrows "The casting was not easy either as being a neo-classical show we needed singers who could really sing! If I tell you the character Franca sings a top F above top C you’ll know what I mean.  Musically I was very fortunate, as my dear friend Shirley White, a first class musician and musical director was just as passionate about the show as me and has done a marvellous job in realising every aspect of the music. Finally, a deal of the singing and dialogue is in Italian, painstaking work by the cast and two wonderful Italian dialogue coaches have made the Italian characters appear to be native speakers."

Actors that have worked on two season shows in the past have admitted to loving it. Most actors, feels Burrows,  will agree that just as you are coming to grips with characterization and performance a season is over, but having a second go at it allows you to develop the character and performance further.  "You can easily understand why the professionals have so many previews before they open," states Burrows. "From an audience perspective, having two venues to choose from allows people who, because of other engagements had missed the first season, now have another opportunity to see the show.  Lilydale and Malvern both have a considerable subscriber base, so there is a fairly sizable audience to begin with."

The Light in the Piazza, as directed by Burrows, has already earned its fair share of critical acclaim, as the small sampling of quotes below will attest, so why not see this encore performance at the wonderfully welcoming Malvern Theatre.

– “excellent casting and clear, uncluttered direction have resulted in expert storytelling and finely nuanced performances.”

– “Gabrielle O’Brien delivers a stellar performance in the central role of Margaret. She captures the full spectrum of guilt, love, passion and regret, winning the audience over in a most endearing manner”.

– “The set designed by David Dare, takes full advantage of the stage. Lighting design by Jason Bovaird, is stunning, providing a soft romantic mood”.

The final quote going to our very own Simon Parris: “A show with wide theatrical appeal. The Light in the Piazza should most definitely be embraced by Melbourne’s music theatre cognoscenti.”

November 1 – 16