Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Based on the film Passione D'Amore by Ettore Scola
and the novel Fosca by I.U. Tarchetti
Directed by John Doyle
Starring Judy Kuhn, Ryan Silverman,
Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus
Classic Stage Company (CSC)
136 East 13th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

When I reviewed Passion’s original Broadway production—in my pre-Aisle Say days—I wrote a review that I’ll start with here. I’ve cut it down, thrown it into italics and swapped in the names of the revival cast for easy reference, since the specific text I’m duplicating is about the material itself, not the production—and since I hold to my original assessment—but I’ll get to both productions once the italics finish and I “return you to the present.” 

I don’t think there’s an easy or wholly accurate review of Passion to be written.

                  You could take a consumers’ advocate stance and say that its composerlyricist Stephen Sondheim—this time in his third collaboration with librettistdirector James Lapine—strays further afield from standard Broadway musical expectations than even he has gone before. And could thus counsel that anyone desiring an easily accessible, comforting musical theatre vocabulary, dance, flash and glitter, will get none of those things and should stay away.

                  You could take the high artistic road and praise the show for its daring and adventurous­ness, for its dogged insistence on pushing the envelope of musical theatre’s capabilities. And could thus counsel that it is a shimmering revelation, good for the theatre and good for the soul.

                  Both positions are misleading. Passion, though anti-establishment in its reflexes, has the capacity to seduce, and gently educate, a traditionalist willing to meet it halfway. And while Passion embraces the extremes of its iconoclasm, it sometimes seems to do so with such a per­verse willfulness that it is likely as not to piss off the theatre sophisticates.

                  Everything about the new musical cries out for debate, starting with the subject matter. Based on the Italian film Passione D’Amore, directed by Ettore Scola (in turn based on a little known novel, Fosca, by I.U. Tarchetti), the story takes place in a remote Italian military outpost in Parma, 1863. The outpost was once a garrison against invasions, but now the garrison is unnecessary. This leaves soldiers with little to do but drill and mark time—fine for Giorgio (Ryan Silverman) who travels when he can to Milan, to conduct a tempestuous affair with the beautiful, married Clara (Melissa Errico). The affair, in time, becomes a shaky haven, a place of escape from Fosca (Judy Kuhn), who lives at the military base with her cousin, Colonel Ricci (Stephen Bogardus). Fosca, an ugly, ill, self-absorbed woman, senses that there is something different about Giorgio and quickly develops an all-consuming, obsessive love for him. It is a love that he at first finds a threat and a burden. And then it begins to change him in ways he doesn’t expect…doesn’t want…and eventually accepts.

                  The musical’s point of view seems to be, as James Lapine said in an interview, that “being naked is not about taking off your clothes,” that Fosca’s story underscores “how little intensity and passion we have in our own lives.” Maybe. But there’s also no denying that Fosca’s obsession comes from a gray, disturbing, highly dysfunctional place…and the notion that it is somehow en­nobling to succumb to such attentions is highly questionable.

                  But if the implied message is arguable, the story is nonetheless a convincing case history, and the authors do a good job of keeping an obvious moral stance out of the proceedings. Perhaps that’s why “Passion” has so divided its audiences. Having illustrated its thesis, it then resolutely refuses to tell you what to think. It means to haunt you…and it does.

                  Perhaps more than any other Sondheim score, Passion does not instantly take root in the memory. It is lush and ravishing, but also, on first hearing, ephemeral, song structures often eschewing the familiar guideposts of what the ear is used to. Par for the Sondheim course, Passion’s is a score whose riches and wonders grow and become apparent to the listener upon subsequent encounters, which I say with the benefit of having had a few. One of the unique thrills of a Sondheim score is the opportu­nity to learn it via the album, and return to the show anew.

                  Lyrically, too, Sondheim is less aggressive about using his trademark pyrotechnics. Rapier wit and complex rhyme schemes give way here to the more dangerous economy of baldly ex­pressed emotion.

                  Lapine’s book is likewise both forthright and muted, And he has attempted to keep the action going in a manner that is fluid and unrelenting—perhaps as a metaphor for Fosca’s obsession. Musical numbers insinuate themselves into the story and just as quietly evanesce, without “buttons” for applause. No musical numbers are listed in the program in fact. The evening is not quite as seamless as the authors intend…but then, the inevitable imperfections in the quest for uncompromising excellence are part of what a Sondheim/Lapine collaboration is about too.

What alters the experience of the show this time around is the direction by John Doyle. His is the kind of reinvestigation that assists the authors in further honing their intent; that in process would seem to have said, “If you meant the show to give this message and evoke that feeling, we need to answer certain questions, more sharply focus certain themes, devise blocking configurations that tacitly help lead the audience along and generally bring them into the world so closely that their own prejudicial filters can’t get in the way. We need to make the show more of what it is.” This is a very significant and profound difference from the more usual revival approach that mixes it up for a “fresh approach” that looks different, but whose efforts reinterpret to the point of redefining. Usually not for the better.

                  In this instance, Doyle makes the argument for Fosca an even stronger one, and the dissolution of Giorgio’s relationship with Clara more of an inevitability, managing to reframe the psychological dynamic such that Fosca, while as unsettling as ever, seems less toxic; and so that Clara, as alluring as ever, represents a heat so intense that it has to cool. This allows our sympathies to shift more fluidly.

                  In part Doyle accomplishes this with casting of the women: Donna Murphy originated the role in 1994; and if my quick internet search is accurate, Judy Kuhn is approximately a year older than Ms. Murphy is now in 2013. But in persona, Kuhn’s Fosca nonetheless registers as a little younger than Murphy’s did (not to take anything away from that magnificent, bravura performance); and in stature she’s smaller and in color paler; her face is also plainer: there’s something of a blank slate that her Fosca’s emotions “write upon” variously, rather than a face so extreme in its profile, and expression of wretchedness that she demands not only to be recognized for the purity of her love, but celebrated for the depth of her misery (which was in a way the authors’ intentional choice in ’94; as if to present any less stark a portrait would be to compromise). But what this smaller, paler, gradually emerging Fosca does is reveal herself in layers, thus giving the audience a chance to find some light within the darkness. Ms. Errico’s Clara, likewise seeming younger than that of Marin Mazzie, is conversely a touch more callow. Never insincere, but seeking in Giorgio more of a retreat than a home—such that, inevitably, when Giogio’s deeper needs wage war with his desires, her convictions begin to erode; and just as he drifts toward Fosca, Clara drifts away from Giogio.

                  One cannot overemphasize how much the staging plays a part in this as well. The CSC, which is here configured in its most usual three-quarter surround arrangement, perforce brings the audience into intimate contact with whatever’s on its stage; but Doyle has somehow drawn upon the physical dimensions to create a storytelling box within the theatrical box that strikes me as portable—movable to another, larger venue, to be blunt (and I think the chances are better than fair)—in which relative closeness and distance are reflections of the love story’s subtextual ebb and flow. I don’t mean to suggest that this is achieved in any self-consciously symbolic way—I think it’s quite subtle and poetic—but if you’re attuned to it—and I was, as soon as I realized how the narrative was being rebalanced—it’s among the most psychologically and analytically conceived stagings I’ve ever encountered. But for all that, hardly clinical.

                  As for other elements, the rest of the fine cast, design, musical direction: let’s just say the standard of excellence and integration holds across the board.

                  I don’t know if Passion will ever be a populist musical, but Doyle has, I think, found a way to break through reflexive walls of resistance some have to its premise—specifically to the heroine’s deservedness of the love she so manipulatively pursues—such that at the very least I believe it would leave even a cynic hard pressed to deny that he found it affecting…if he was being utterly honest with you and with himself. And for that reason the assessment I keep circling around is that Doyle has “solved” Passion. But I don’t land on it because it’s not quite correct.

                  More the case is that he has created an environment in which Passion has been able to solve itself…

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