Passion Review: Sondheim’s creepy love story at Classic Stage Company

Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and Judy Kuhn in Sondheim's "Passion" at CSC
Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and Judy Kuhn in Sondheim’s “Passion” at CSC

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

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

12 thoughts on “Passion Review: Sondheim’s creepy love story at Classic Stage Company

    1. Should we count either? Weren’t they both cabaret acts? In your links, Mel Gussow calls Cabaret Verboten “an uneven anthology of songs and sketches” and Bon Appetit “two one-woman mini-musicals” Both were way back in 1991 by the way. (Maybe I should have written “first fully-staged musical”

      1. Oh, I don’t think either could be described as a cabaret act. Cabaret Verboten was a revue comprised of existing material, not altogether unlike shows like Ain’t Misbehavin’, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Fosse that have won Tonys and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for Best Musical. For that matter, La Plume de ma Tante, which won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical way back in 1960 sounds like it was less of a musical than Cabaret Verboten, which was clearly not a conventional book musical, but also clearly not a cabaret act. Cabaret Verboten has been staged several times since then with different casts. That doesn’t really happen with cabaret acts.

        And being a pair of mini-musicals would hardly mean something wasn’t a musical. The Apple Tree was three mini-musicals but no one questions that it was a musical. If Bon Appetit! can be questioned, it would be because it was two one-act operas. The fact that both parts are one-character pieces has little if anything to do with it, I think. There are a couple of quite famous one-character operas and a bunch of others that aren’t as well known though some were by well known composers. No one would call any of those a cabaret act.

        If anything, quoting Gussow calling it “mini-musicals” bolsters the classification of the show as a musical. He also describes it as a “double musical,” so he definitely seems to have thought of it as a musical rather than an opera. (And, of course, operas produced on Broadway have been thought of musicals.)

        And it sure sounds to me like both Cabaret Verboten and Bon Appetit! were fully staged. You could say that Passion was the first conventional book musical to be produced by CSC but I’m not sure that really is much of a distinction.

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