Patti Cohenour, who has been playing Signora Naccarelli (Fabrizio's mother) in The Light in the Piazza, has come to call Tuesday and Wednesdays her "flip nights." At those two evening performances, when Tony Award winner Victoria Clark, is out, she plays Margaret Johnson.
"At the Wednesday matinee," says Cohenour, "with Vickie back, I return to playing Signora. It's really bizarre and can get confusing, but I just put the key in the ignition and get rolling!"

These past four weeks, she's really been running, and is totally exhausted "from the madness of doing the show and the workshop for Kristina," Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' Swedish hit which is projected (Spring '07) to be the next musical from the Abba duo behind Mamma Mia! "It's an epic musical with a rich original score," says Cohenour. "Over there, it had a cast of sixty-eight. We did it with twenty-eight. Still, that's a lot; but it's an enormous score. Who knows what's going to happen. I have my fingers crossed."
Kristina would be the duo's first musical since Chess, co-written with Tim Rice, a hit on the West End, as conceived by Michael Bennett, but a failure in a much-revised 1988 Broadway version.

Based on novels by Sweden's Vilhelm Moberg, it tells of poor Swedish farmers who, to escape starvation, emigrate to Minnesota in the 1850s. If the story sounds familiar, it's because the books were the basis for Jan Troell's "Utvandrarna" ("The Emigrants" (1971), which starred Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann).

With the workshop over, Cohenour's singular focus is on her dual acting jobs. She describes a funny moment in those performances when she's Margaret. "I'm upstage, back to audience. When I hear Diane (Sutherland) as Signora speak, it's like an out-of-body experience. It's thrilling and crazy at the same time. I look at it as repertory. One night, you're in one role; the next, you're in another."

Compared to Signora, the role of Margaret is huge. "The songs, the monologues! Craig (Lucas)' writing is very Pinter. It's brilliant but very difficult to get behind all the dialogue. But you have to do it so you can live within the words, and Margaret can become a natural performance that affects audiences. It was a challenge, and it took a while to get it right."

She calls Light a remarkable, deeply-layered play. "You don't get that kind of emotional journey and weight often in musical theater. It's probably the most difficult musical to perform in a long, long time." Even with all the changes and rewrites as the play grew from its earliest forms at Seatttle's Intiman Theater and was focused and tightened, "this is one project where there've been no bumps in the road. It's all been smooth sailing."

According to Cohenour, what you see onstage couldn't have happened if there had been problems with egos. "It wouldn't have had its heart if our company weren't the kind of people who know what it's about. There's total respect for everyone. You can't do it alone. It's a true ensemble piece."
She states she's never been in a piece where all the parts are so beautifully integrated. "What Bart(lett Sher) and Jonathan (Butterell, who did the musical staging) have done is incomparable. The cinematic flow, the way the sets glide in and out! They've raised the bar for musical theater."

Cohenour says she never had a doubt that Light would be a huge success. "At the Tony Awards, I was confident we'd do well." But there was Spamalot. Light didn't take home the Best Musical prize. "Everyone in Spamalot is going to be mad at me for saying this, but I still think in my heart that we won!"

Cohenour had early exposure to what she calls Sher's brilliance. "I got to work with him early on at the Intiman, where he's artistic director. Cohenour and her photographer husband, Thomas Bliss, settled in Seattle after her Canadian tour in the Hal Prince Show Boat revival.

Perhaps Sher knows Cohenour better than she does. "He'd always bring me in to audition for roles I didn't think I was right for. It became a joke, but I love the fact that he thinks I can do things that even I don't think I can do. When I was asked to come in and audition for an Italian signora, I thought, 'Oh, here we go again.' I didn't even know The Light in the Piazza was a musical. I auditioned with 'Aiutami' as a monologue. At that time, I didn't know it was one of Adam (Guettel)'s songs."

This time everyone, including Cohenour, agreed she was right for the role, and soon she was in New York doing the workshop and devouring pages and pages of music.

The Phantom of the Opera existed before she was chosen to be Sarah Brightman's alternate and, eventually, her replacement, as Christine. "So, like with The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Big River, it was great to participate from the very beginning and watch a show's growth."

Margaret is hardly offstage, and when she is, she's boundling up and down stairs to the next entrance. Her most emotional moment as Margaret is the Act Two scene in the church as the families prepare for the wedding. "When Signor Naccarelli storms out with his family," Cohenour states, "Margaret and Clara are left alone onstage. Even Fabrizio deserts her. It's that moment, seeing her shattered, when Margaret realizes how much Clara loves him. To see my daughter rejected again makes me all the more determined. Margaret has protected her daughter for so long and this is the most serious fracture. She becomes steely and determined."

The Light cast is very excited over the prospect of an early summer TV broadcast over PBS, when the musical will be exposed to millions. "They'll see a pristine show," claims Cohenour. "All the work that went into creating such a marvelous musical theater experience has been maintained with the replacements."

The cast now includes Katie Clarke as Clara; Aaron Lazar as Fabrizio and Chris Sarandon as Signor Naccarelli. "Katie is so beautiful and vulnerable," explains Cohenour, "that the emotion of the scenes really hits you. Yes, we're characters in a play, and you have to keep telling yourself that. But it still gets to you."

Cohenour prefers not to speak too frankly about working with Michael Crawford, but she does speak of the late Dorothy Loudon. She was one of the last to work with the veteran star in a live production, City Center Encores!' Sweet Adeline by Jerome Kern.
"We shared a dressing room. She was quite the trouper, and so adorable. And tons of fun! She did something that is unheard of in this business. She was set to take the final bow in the curtain call but insisted that it should be me (in the title role). In retrospect, I would have preferred not to have followed her, but what a gracious thing to do."


Key Subjects: 
Patti Cohenour, The Light in the Piazza, Phantom of the Opera, Dorothy Loudon
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
March 2006