At the beginning of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Passion,” the first musical staged by the Classic Stage Company in its 46-year history, two of the three lovers of the story, Giorgio and Clara, sing that they are not having
“Just another love story,/
that’s what they would claim./
Just another simple love story/
Aren’t all of them the same?
No but this is more/
“Passion” is certainly not just another love story. Whether it’s more or less a work of musical theater has been up for debate since it debuted on Broadway in 1994, when, closing after 280 performances, it was reportedly the shortest-running show to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. The initial New York Times review simultaneously praised much about the show and concluded “the boldness of the enterprise never quite pays off.”
It is easy to see the show as a series of problems to overcome: The plot seems unlikely, almost creepy; the main character is deliberately overbearing; the music is opera-like but with a minimal of catchy arias; and much of the “action” consists of the reading aloud of letters. But CSC has done right by “Passion” in the show’s first full production in New York in almost two decades, thanks to intimate staging and first-rate vocal performances, especially that of Judy Kuhn.
Kuhn plays Fosca, an ugly, terminally ill, obsessive woman who falls in love with Giorgio, the handsome captain, when he arrives at the remote military outpost whose commander is Fosca’s cousin. Giorgio is repelled by Fosca, and, as he tries to explain to her repeatedly, he is in love with somebody else, with Clara. But, as we soon learn, Clara is actually married, and has a young child. Fosca’s relentless stalking finally has its effect; Giorgio’s pity turns to love. There are duels and deaths and lots and lots of letters.
“Passion” is based on the novel “Fosca,” a fictionalized account of an actual affair that the 19th century Italy soldier and writer Iginio Ugo Tarchetti had with an epileptic woman, which a century later the Italian filmmaker Ettore Scola turned into the film “Passione d’Amour”
If 19th century Italy screams out “opera,” Sondheim resists the notion that that’s what he created in “Passion.” “I have successfully avoided enjoying opera all my life,” he writes in volume 2 of his book of lyrics (excerpted in a CSC newsletter.) “I chose to think of the show as one long rhapsodic love song….” Whatever. (That is probably why there is no listing of the individual songs in the program; you have to go to a previous cast album to learn the titles.) Still, there are some lovely, excuse me, songs in “Passion,”such as “Loving You” and “I Wish I Could Forget You,” where Fosca insists Giorgio write her a love letter that she dictates to him.
It’s Kuhn’s intense singing, and the magnificent voices of Melissa Errico as Clara and Ryan Silverman as Giorgio that redeem “Passion” for me. I had listened to the album of “Company” for years before I saw it staged and, although I consider it one of my favorite musicals, I have to confess that I was disappointed.‘Passion” strikes me as the reverse; the album doesn’t work as well as the staging, because, until you see it on stage, much of the interaction – the interweaving of dialogue and song; the characters “speaking” to one another (via letter) from three different locations — seems needlessly complicated. CSC’s intimate 180-seat theater, with an open-thrust stage that puts you never more than a few feet away from the performers, and its newly constructed “orchestra loft” with a visible 9-piece band, allows you not only to make sense of the interaction, but to feel part of it.
Classic Stage Company
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine based on the film “Passione d’Amore” directed by Ettore Scola;
Directed by John Doyle; musical direction by Rob Berman; costumes by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.
WITH: Stephen Bogardus (Colonel Ricci), Jeffry Denman (Lieutenant Barri/Mother), Melissa Errico (Clara), Jason Michael Evans (Private Augenti/Mistress), Ken Krugman (Lieutenant Torasso/Father), Judy Kuhn (Fosca), Orville Mendoza (Sergeant Lombardi), Tom Nelis (Doctor Tambourri), Will Reynolds (Major Rizzolli/Ludovic) and Ryan Silverman (Giorgio).
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes without an intermission
“Passion” is scheduled to run through April 7
Update: Passion has been extended through April 14, 2013