This little ‘Light’ of hers

Orange County native Erin Mackey will play Clara in South Coast Repertory's "The Light in the Piazza."
Orange County native Erin Mackey will play Clara in South Coast Repertory’s “The Light in the Piazza.”

If you ever watched Disney’s 1998 romantic comedy “The Parent Trap,” then you most likely saw Erin Mackey — but you would have had no way of knowing that it was her.

Such is the life of an acting and photo double.

Only the back of her head or a bit of her profile, captured at a distance, made it into some shots, said the Fullerton native.

Mackey, who was active in her hometown’s Children’s Repertory Theater, missed six months of sixth grade to take the role. Although she and Lindsay Lohan haven’t stayed in touch, Mackey recalled dressing up in matching outfits with the young star of the movie and attempting to fool people on the set.

“It’s good that I was 11, because what 11-year-old is going to know what to do anyway?” she said. “I mean, Lindsay definitely knew more about what was going on. I had no idea what I was doing — absolutely none.”

Fast-forward 17 years and Mackey, who will be 28 in June, can no longer say she is out of her element. The seasoned actor, with roles in “Wicked,” “Anything Goes,” “Chaplin” and “Sondheim on Sondheim” under her belt, will be onstage at South Coast Repertory until Feb. 23, portraying Clara in “The Light in the Piazza.”

The musical — book by Craig Lucas, lyrics by Adam Guettel and direction from Kent Nicholson — is not a traveling show, but one that the venue is creating from scratch. SCR auditioned actors and selected the director and design team.

“I have loved this show since I saw it at Lincoln Center,” said artistic director Marc Masterson. “The music, the story and the passionate heart of this piece get me every time.”

“The Light in the Piazza,” which received two Outer Critics Circle Awards, five Drama Desk Awards and six Tony Awards, including Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations, also includes David Burnham and Patti Cohenour — both members of the original Broadway cast.

“In a tight rehearsal schedule, it is nice to have some people who are experienced with the arc of the play,” Masterson remarked. “However, all of these artists are approaching it as if it is their first time and rediscovering the play through this entirely new production.”

Having watched — and loved — the play in New York, where she resides, Mackey had for a long time kept an eye on the show’s trajectory. Victoria Clark, her voice coach and friend, originated the role of Clara’s mother, Margaret Johnson.

“Any time anyone’s asked me about my dream role, I’ve always said, Clara in “The Light in the Piazza,” Mackey enthused about snagging a role in her favorite musical. “So now, I guess, I have to say Margaret in ‘The Light in the Piazza’ for when I’m old enough.”


‘A place that I love’

Clara’s part came to Mackey’s attention through Tim MacDougall, her California-based voice teacher. Several months after she expressed an interest in being part of the cast, Mackey was asked to send in a tape. Soon, she received the news that the role was hers.

Although the entire group met for the first time at the end of December, when eight-hour-a-day rehearsals began, everyone already loves each other, Mackey said.

“This score just really hits a chord — no pun intended — in me,” she reflected. “There’s very few pieces of music that I feel that way about, actually. It also sits in a place that I love. So much of theater nowadays has kind of a pop-rock sound, which is just not my thing. I love Rogers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, and I love where this sits vocally for me.”

Although Mackey is no hopeless romantic, she has enjoyed playing a character who is open and “uncensored” and who goes through an incredible journey of becoming a woman and finding love. “The Light in the Piazza” doesn’t shy away from romance or try to bring the lead couple crashing to reality, which Mackey believes is joyous.

“This show makes me cry,” the soprano said, laughing. “I have my husband, so I know what it’s like to fall in love and find your person. It’s special in that way.”

Mackey met her spouse, Stanton Nash, on the set of “Wicked” in Chicago. The two were friends when he played Boq, a nerd who is in love with Glinda — enacted by Mackey — but doesn’t get picked by her. Offstage, though, it was a different story.

The two understand the ins and outs of the acting fraternity, which, in Mackey’s view, is a huge advantage. It can be dispiriting to make the rounds of the audition circuit only to end up with rejections and go long periods without work. But Nash is an entrepreneur at heart, she noted, and doesn’t allow either of them to dwell on small losses.

Instead, she said, they focus on the big picture and say, “When we are 80 years old, are we going to be sad that we didn’t do some little thing, or are we going to be glad that we went to Cambodia [for a two-week holiday]?”


Overcoming stage fright

Growing up, Mackey was very shy until Rolling Hills Elementary School picked “Mary Poppins” for its annual show. Eager to play Jane Banks, she mustered the courage to appear in front of an audience. Although bitten by the acting bug right away, she still considers herself an introvert.

It’s something of a misconception, she believes, that all performers enjoy being the center of attention. For her part, Mackey wishes she could get paid to sing in her bedroom, and if a stage was absolutely necessary, she would be thrilled if everyone would look the other way instead of gluing their eyes to her in the spotlight.

“There’s just something distinctly unnatural about putting yourself out there like that. I think it’s terrifying that you could mess up at any second,” she exclaimed. “What I love is telling stories and telling them through songs. It’s such a powerful thing for people to experience. At least I know it is for me.”

What also makes acting appealing, she mused, is the community of actors, directors and other creative types who’ve been the nicest and most interesting people she’s ever crossed paths with.

Still, Mackey makes sure to keep things in perspective. She recently enrolled in Hunter College, where she has been studying sociology and French — without having yet picked a major.

“As much as I love theater — and I’m so glad I had all the opportunities that I did — I think that I wish I could have told myself to pay attention a little bit more to other things besides singing and acting,” she said. “When you get too one-track-minded, then it becomes a little too important.

“It’s just a musical at the end of the day. It’s sweet, it’s awesome and it’s powerful, but that’s all it is.”

If You Go

What: “The Light in the Piazza”

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays from Feb. 1 to 23

Cost: Tickets start at $25

Information: (714) 708-5555 or