a theatre, film & pop culture review
– Stephen Sondheim
A handsome military officer and a radiant woman, love-sick and high on the simple pleasure of being in one another’s arms, cling to each other and sing, “I thought I knew what love was / I’d only heard what love was /… with you / There’s just happiness / Endless happiness…”
Jonathan Tunick’s iridescent orchestrations swirl and envelop the couple in another kind of glimmering embrace as they gaze longingly upon one another under a warm glow. But this isn’t Rodgers & Hammerstein, this is Stephen Sondheim, and even when his music is its most lushly romantic — and it is, here, simply gorgeous — he’s pointing towards something darker, slipping in telling references of what’s to come. Soon, the lovers are singing of a love that “shuts away the world” and “envelops my soul.” Romantic love or alarming obsession?
Sondheim suggests it’s both.
It turns out that Giorgio and Clara, those of the forbidden love — she is married, with children — still don’t actually know what love is, at least not the kind that fuels Passion. Based on Ettore Scola’s film Passione d’Amore (1981), which was itself adapted from the 1869 novel Fosca by Iginio Tarchetti, this musical’s title doesn’t refer to the young couple’s strong, but simple, feelings for each other. Currently at Classic Stage Company in its first New York revival since its Broadway bow in 1994, Passion is actually an über-moody love triangle, filled out by the sickly but forceful, and not exactly attractive, woman named Fosca.
As Fosca, Judy Kuhn (does anyone else hear “Colors of the Wind” dance through their minds upon reading that name?) is physically delicate without suggesting feebleness. Ghostly pale, with dark circles weighing down eyes heavy with continuous reading (“I read to live”), the dowdy Kuhn stalks the stage, shamelessly pursuing Giorgio to the ends of the earth and back — if not physically, emotionally. Kuhn’s impeccably-voiced Fosca isn’t tragic, she’s cunning, and does she get what she wants? Oh, yes.
The real, if small, tragedy of Passion is that the only two women represented are, in their simplest forms, an adulteress and a stalker. Melissa Errico, with her glittering soprano and natural warmth, imbues Clara with perhaps more than deserved sympathy, and Kuhn’s more-clever-than-wretched Fosca inspires our annoyance rather than our sympathy. When the latter finally breaks down Giorgio — “loving you is not a choice” — we feel sorry for him for giving in to a crazy — or is it “passionate”? — person’s antics.
James Lapine’s book intricately weaves questions of power, beauty, purpose, possession, and yes, ultimately and inextricably embedded within all those, love. But even while it challenges our notions of all these things, the musical never gives us a good reason to believe that the handsome and anguished Giorgio — played with a robust and very likable earnestness by Ryan Silverman — would ever fall in love with such a homely and fawning figure as Fosca. Neither does director-designer John Doyle help us to understand such a choice: his spare production (the set consists of a few chairs and stark, black walls) is so toned-down as to lack any, well, passion (in the most bafflingly obvious example of this, a bed isn’t deemed a necessary set piece for a musical about lust and longing). The overall feel is very-near clinical, which shouldn’t surprise: each musical Doyle helms is consequently drained of heated emotion.
Would Passion be better served with histrionic performances and operatic design? Not necessarily (though, truth be told, Donna Murphy can sell anything), and honestly, this production — and the show’s — flaws are absolutely minor when considering its strengths: Silverman, Errico and Kuhn are beautifully voiced and utterly watchable, and the entire supporting cast is excellent; the full orchestra and Tunick’s orchestrations are divine; and Sondheim and Lapine’s work exquisitely reminds us of what a musical can be: lushly romantic, generally smartly structured, and musically complex. A very happy reminder, if indeed a rare one.