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Stage star lets it shine

Actress, mom feels her 'Piazza' character both inside and out
by: ©2007 JOAN MARCUS, As Margaret Anderson in the touring company for “The Light in the Piazza,” Christine Andreas says she feels warmth and brightness from the story and songs, not just the stage lights.

Christine Andreas looks forward singing the last line of 'The Light in the Piazza.'

Not because the star of the hit Broadway musical needs a break after spending all but eight minutes on stage. But because that final number, 'Fable,' is the climax of a show that begins as a simple girl-meets-boy romance, then opens up to cover many different aspects of love.

As she sings the last five words, '… the light in the piazza,' Andreas says she 'usually feels a warmth and a letting go, as (her character) Margaret goes into an altered state. She realizes there is more to life than she thought before.'

It's this maternal epiphany, which is two hours and 15 minutes in the making, that gives the story its drive. Andreas plays Margaret Johnson, a married woman from North Carolina touring Italy with her daughter in 1953.

Andreas describes her character as 'someone who crosses every T, even for other people. She likes to stay in control.' And while Margaret can handle the sensuous pleasures of Italy - the naked marble statues, the food, the vivacious Italians - her greatest challenge comes when her daughter, Clara, 26, falls in love with Fabrizio, a local boy of 20.

Spoiler alert: Margaret reveals that her daughter has never been the same since she was kicked in the head by a Shetland pony on her 12th birthday. The result is a young woman who is childlike in the sense that she's fun and innocent, but also in that she is mentally immature.

'There's a moment in the original novella by Elizabeth Spencer when the young lovers are playing in the pool and Clara gets overexcited, but Fabrizio holds her hand and she calms right down,' Andreas says. 'That's when Margaret begins to think, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful for Clara to have a typical relationship with a man?' '

The mother has turned the idea of love into fairy tale and fantasy for her daughter. 'What mother doesn't want to keep their daughter young forever, pleasant and with good manners, not making the demands a teenager does?' Andreas says. 'But Margaret realizes she hasn't gone much past princesses and castles in her own marriage.'

Light comes with love

The subject matter isn't the only thing that reminds one of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The lush, string-heavy music is in the same tradition as suburb-pleasing hits such as 'Evita' and 'Aspects of Love.' Composer Adam Guettel is a romantic, but there also are '50s bop moments, as well as atonal elements and, when the Italian lad Fabrizio sings, a hint of classical.

'Oprah' fans will like the show, because it explores parent-child love and self-love as well as romantic love. Andreas says the light in the piazza lifts all Margaret's guilt and all the pressure she puts on herself.

'There's no living until there's forgiveness, and the light does different healing work on different people.'

The 'light' in question is a broad metaphor. 'To me it's grace, as in the Christian world, or qi in the East,' Andreas says. 'It's the lightest part of being human, a gift that's there all the time.'

Mom knows her role well

Andreas says the show has a miraculous effect on those who see it, if they are receptive. 'There's a lovely vibe in our touring company, all 40 people are really quite happy to be right here right now. Traveling is not the easiest thing in the world right now, so you try to keep your load light.'

The singer is referring to her emotional load: as the mother of a 19-year-old son who is mentally challenged, she identifies strongly with the mother's dilemma, of having to let go of an adult who is still a child.

Her son, Mac, was oxygen-deprived at birth, leading to mild autism, epilepsy and some cerebral palsy. 'He's a handsome young man, but he's still struggling with 2 plus 2.'

In some ways Mac functions at the level of a 3-year-old, yet he has just successfully moved into a group home at his own insistence.

'Every time I talk to him there's a new person emerging,' she says, 'which is what I wanted.'

As Margaret sings at one point, 'Without risk there is no drama, without drama there is no asking for help.'

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'The Light in the Piazza'

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 10-15

Where: Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St., 503-241-1802

Cost: $23-$70; also available through Ticketmaster (503-790-2787), subject to service charges