THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA * Nonesuch Records

If Monty Python’s Spamalot is this Broadway season’s blockbuster – like The Producers, an entertaining yet overhyped mega-hit musical comedy that will leave a lot of people wondering what all the fuss was about – The Light in the Piazza is a genuine sleeper, an underrated masterpiece waiting to be discovered by those who love romantic art song. Perhaps the original cast album, just released on Nonesuch Records, will help accomplish that feat. 

With music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers) and book by the excellent gay playwright Craig Lucas (based on a 1959 novella by Elizabeth Spencer), Piazza has an operatic grandeur and musical sweep that might remind you of shows like Sweeney Todd, Passion, or A Little Night Music. But this is decidedly not a Sondheim knock-off – Guettel has his own vocabulary that combines ravishing melodiousness with conversational quirkiness. Nor does the show announce its greatness in any way. It sticks to the modest story it’s telling and lets richness emerge from going deeply into it.

It is a love story that seems simple as pie: on vacation in Italy with her mother, a young American girl falls in love with an Italian boy. The catch is that Clara, who’s 26 and gorgeous (certainly as played by the exquisite Kelli O’Hara), was kicked in the head by a horse at age 12 and hasn’t developed mentally since then. Her damage isn’t treated as tragedy or pathology, though – it gives her a radiant simplicity, exemplified in the title song by her ecstatic embrace of beauty and love. And her occasional hysterical outbursts make her right at home with Fabrizio (Matthew Morrison) and his highly dramatic family.

But the star of the show is Victoria Clark, whose performance as the mother has justifiably won all the awards this year. Having watched the affection drain from her marriage (the quietly devastating “Dividing Day”), she’s devoted her life to overprotecting Clara. Now she has to accept that a life is possible for her child she hadn’t anticipated. (It doesn’t take much translation to read her as a P-FLAG mom.) 

Her glorious finale, “Fable,” is both a self-transcendent blessing of her daughter’s marriage and an encapsulation of the point that the show dodges a million clichés to arrive at honestly: whatever the potential pitfalls, love is worth taking chances for.

The Advocate, July 5, 2005