Lilydale Athenaeum Theatre will be presenting the Australian non-professional premiere of the Tony award winning musical The Light in the Piazza later this month.

Gabrielle O'Brien plays the wealthy southerner Margaret Johnson and says the story is at first glance, an old fashioned story of romantic love – but at its heart it is a moving and dramatically told story of the dilemma’s faced by a mother as her innocent daughter finds love in a foreign country. "My obsession with the show grew as I read the Elizabeth Spencer novella from which the show was adapted and revisited the 1962 movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Rossano Brazzi," explains O'Brien. " In contrast to many musicals, this show has at its heart a beautifully written script that engages the audience in the events unfolding, with humour and at times tears. Add a wonderful score, that is both romantic and sophisticated and you have the perfect music."

O'Brien's first introduction to the music of the show came to her at a final night party for Jack O’Hagan’s Humdingers. "We were talking about our show ‘bucket list’ and Alan (director Alan Burrows) played the opening scenes of the PBS broadcast of the Lincoln Centre performance of The Light in the Piazza," enthuses O'Brien. "I was hooked from that moment and once I heard the full soundtrack I knew that I would do anything in my power to be in this show if the opportunity arose before I was past it!"

Lilydale have been the first in the land to secure the non professional rights – O'Brien describes the reality of being part of a premier production of a show as significant and a huge responsibility. "Our audience will include people who know and love the show who will come with high expectations. Lilydale’s program is primarily straight plays, so many of our audience will be unfamiliar with the show and the style of music. It might be challenging and we hope exciting for them," she says.

"In terms of the significance of the role of me, it is clearly one of the great musical roles for a mature woman, many ‘mother’ roles are supporting while Margaret is a key player in this show. It is up there with Mrs Lovett for roles to do before you die! I am excited and daunted by scope of it but most of all I want to be worthy of it. There seem to be so many things about it that make me think I was meant to pay this role – but able to play it is another question all together!"

"I was born in the 1950’s so the context in which this show is set has significance to me – the conservative and innocent society that is the foundation of this family story may seem unbelievable to many younger people but it really resonates with me. I have vivid memories of power of codes of behaviour and dress – never be seen without gloves, hat and handbag, no talking in church, doing what your parents told you, the fear of letting young people spend time alone together – goodness they might get up to something!"

"It’s a small thing but I have my own love affair with Italy so Margaret’s declaration that ‘I think it’s my favourite place on earth” has passed my lips many times before I read this script."

O'Brien thinks of her theatrical achievements in terms of 'young me' and 'older me' – separated by a gap of 15 years during which time she travelled extensively in her professional career. "In the early years I worked with Whitehorse, Festival, CLOC, Carousel theatre companies and played some lovely roles including Irene in Irene, Eliza in My Fair Lady, Charity in Barnum, Anna in The King and I, Anne in A Little Night Music, Side by Side by Sondheim, Mary in Merrily we Roll Along," she says. " I also did shows with Toorak Players during that time. In fact, it was Alan who saw me in a restaurant in Camberwell, who coaxed me out of retirement to play with Rob Constable in I Do, I Do. Since then I have done a show every couple of years including Noises Off, Freedom of the City, Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast, Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd and La Cage aux Folles, with our Fabrizio, Nick Kong."

O'Brien is first to admit that this is a  demanding role vocally but the real challenge for her lies in her ability to engage people in Margaret’s emotional journey. O'Brien has enjoyed the challenges of developing both comic and dramatic roles in the past but this role  requires an ability to bring both humour and heart to Margaret as she struggles to navigate her way through the moral and emotional dilemma’s she faces. She confides her thoughts, aspirations and struggles to the audience during the show, so it is important for O'Brien to be able build a bond with them and trust them with her deepest feelings.

"I’ve found the music one of the big challenges, both in terms of learning it and being true to the subtle writing – Adam Guettel has an extraordinary ability build into the music the tensions and dilemmas of the characters….it is fair to say nothing is straight forward with his music," she says. "I’ve had to get over thinking that people will be expecting me to sing like Victoria Clark – I don’t, but fair to say it is a demanding vocal role for someone who dusts off the vocal cords once in every couple of years. I know the audience will be thrilled by the beautiful singing and performances of Alex Clover, playing Clara and Nick Kong, playing Fabrizio.  The Naccarelli family are also in fine voice, singing some daunting music and conversing in Italian like it was their first language!"

O'Brien admits there is a big list in terms of bringing this show to life in both a theoretical and practical way. One thing that is immediately problematic is taking a show that was originally staged on a massive stage and placing it in a small intimate space.  "This provided challenges that have been met with David Dare’s simple but evocative set design and we’re looking forward to Jason Bovaird’s lighting design which will create the openness and light of Florence and Rome."

O'Brien further explains: "The experience of Margaret and Clara’s emersion in Italy is replicated for the audience as the Italian roles deliver their dialogue in Italian! I’m amazed how easy they make it look and sound but I suspect they have had their moments getting to this point."

"It seems to me the greatest challenge of this production is mastering the music – this is no musical comedy score.  I don’t have the language to describe it but it is classical in its complexity and as anyone who has been tempted to do a song from the show for an audition would know – it is not music that you can sight read. So the rehearsals with a number of pianists have been critical as we need skilled back up pianist in the event Shirley is ill.
Shirley White as musical director and pianist has done an extraordinary job learning the score, teaching us all our music and putting together the musicians who will play this beautiful score.  We were very fortunate to gain access to a reduced orchestration for piano, violin, and harp, viola and bass. and we are all excited and looking forward to sitzprobe to hear them together. Oh, did I mention that our musicians will be behind us and so the reassuring wave of the conductor will be absent."

O'Brien's hope is that audiences will leave this show feeling satisfied, entertained, interested and stimulated or whatever is on their list for a good night at the theatre.  If they tell everyone they know not to miss it, all the better!

"‘What would you be prepared to do for your child’s future happiness?’ is a question that is as relevant today as it was in 1952 and so I would hope that the show would lead people to acknowledge we are often confronted with decisions that make us choose between competing values we believe are important -perhaps there is not a right or wrong answer just tradeoffs. I suspect for some it will leave them questioning or debating what they would do in a similar situation," she says.

The Light in the Piazza plays at Lilydale Athenaeum Theatre
August 21 – September 7

*Production Photo of a US season.