Review: Intense revival of Sondheim's 'Passion'

JENNIFER FARRAR Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Can obsession create genuine love? The question shudders with possibilities throughout the melodramatic musical "Passion," whose plot strains credulity, yet celebrates the erratic improbabilities of love.

It's about a 19th-century Italian love triangle between a handsome young soldier, his passionate, married mistress back home, and an obsessed, demanding invalid at his remote regimental posting who tries to turn his distaste for her into love.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, the show's Broadway debut in 1994 won the Tony Award for best musical. An intimate, 100-minute revival at Classic Stage Company opened Thursday night on the small thrust stage, crisply directed and designed by John Doyle (director of the Broadway revivals of "Sweeney Todd" and "Company").

Doyle cleverly locates the accomplished nine-member orchestra, led by Rob Berman, high aloft in a clear skybox. With little furniture, no backdrops except for a few curtains, and everything painted black, the atmosphere is claustrophobic and often nightmarish. The ebb and flow of the romantic, subtle score and the cadence of the lyrics are hypnotic; the whole thing might be a dream, as remembered long after by the soldier, Giorgio.

As Giorgio, Ryan Silverman sings robustly, projecting a winning gravity and earnestness. Melissa Errico sweetly and brightly voices Clara, his mistress. Judy Kuhn as sickly Fosca sings impeccably, imbuing her unsympathetic character with an almost-feral, obsessive, clinging ferocity that overshadows everything else.

The songs, which have no names, build from the characters' interactions and feelings. Giorgio and Clara drift around scenes of his life at the military quarters, reading aloud their letters to one another across time and space. Errico is bathed in flattering golden lighting, but her passion for Giorgio seems subdued in comparison to Kuhn's savage intensity.

Sondheim and Lapine have collaborated on several musicals, including "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods," both full of popular songs and plentiful humor. In contrast, "Passion" is intentionally humorless, although the first duet between Giorgio and Clara definitely contains an ironic foreshadowing. The attractive pair blithely sings, "How quickly pity leads to love," about their own fortuitous first meeting, which contrasts greatly with the lengthy fight Fosca undertakes to convert Giorgio's pity and dislike into love.

Giorgio is understandably dismayed by Fosca's unseemly and relentless hounding, and Silverman vehemently performs an angry song berating Fosca for her "smothering pursuit." He sarcastically declares her obsession is not love, but "the reverse, like a curse."

Silverman has the difficult task of maintaining credibility as handsome Giorgio's passion at last improbably turns from the lovely Clara toward the plain, self-pitying Fosca. In fact, Fosca is so much of a harpy and so conniving that it's hard to believe her hellish persistence could ever turn Giorgio into her admiring lover.

Kuhn's aggressive melancholy and fanaticism are compelling to watch, although physically, she's been made to appear repulsive. She's swathed in oversized, shapeless garments that worsen her ghastly, hollow-eyed pallor, and topped off by dirty-looking, thinning hair.

The two military men of note are the regimental doctor (Tom Nelis, compassionate and a bit pompous), and Fosca's kindly cousin, the colonel who leads the regiment (Stephen Bogardus, briskly authoritative). A chorus of boorish soldiers provides colorful commentary, and handles scene changes by rearranging the minimal furnishings.

Sondheim's optimism that the very little bit of charm and sympathetic backstory allowed Fosca could overcome her otherwise wholly negative personality could be defined with a lyric from a 1913 musical, "You made me love you." Instead, Georgio finally praises Fosca for teaching him about "love without reason." For a modern audience, it's better to just enjoy these performances and the music, and not worry about the story.

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Online:

http://www.classicstage.org