To close its season the Wilma Theater has selected a daring and haunting musical, Stephen Sondheim's "Passion". The question about this production being -- the passion -- where is it?
Director Jiri Zizka has taken an intimate chamber musical and instead of basking in the intimacy has made it seem remote and estranged from the audience by his overuse of scrims behind which members of the cast are continually hidden. Granted, the set by Anne Patterson is quite beautiful, employing florid light projections as scene changes. However, in the opening number -- a glorious paean to post-coital bliss -- where Giorgio and Clara are deliciously luxuriating in the afterglow of an afternoon of amore, Mr. Zizka has boxed the lovers into a small scrim window. So, instead of the audience being in the boudoir with the lovers where we can enjoy their "Happiness" (the name of the opening song that flows on and on like a river of joy.) we are now peeking in from the outside window like voyeurs. This scenic device not only somewhat obscures the actors (perhaps Mr. Zizka wanted to soften their semi-nakedness) but masks their voices as well. I could hardly hear them sing. The orchestra, hidden behind the set, also sounds muffled.
Throughout the play Mr. Zizka has actors stand behind gauzy scrims while they are singing or vanish altogether from the stage when someone is singing to them. This hazy staging does not help clarify the piece but rather obfuscates the action. The play is about passion and how it affects our lives, but instead of fanning the flames, Mr. Zizka is constantly dampening the embers.
"Passion" opened on Broadway in 1994 and won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score for Stephen Sondheim and best book for James Lapine. The story is based on the film, "Amore", by Ettore Scolla. Taking place in the mid 1800's, Giorgio, a young officer who is having an affair with the beautiful, married Clara, is posted to a garrison far away from Rome high up in a remote mountain village. While he writes dutifully to his love, every day, he meets the sickly and unattractive Fosca, his commander's cousin and dependent. Fosca is the antithesis of Giorgio's beloved Clara, who is beautiful, fair, sweet, healthy and undemanding. Fosca is plain, dark, intense, an invalid and needy. But Fosca has immediately become entranced with the young, handsome Giorgio and her web of obsession strangely draws him to her. Granting Fosca the friendship that she asks for, Giorgio soon realizes that Fosca wants more from him. In a desperate attempt to get away from her he asks for a leave back to Rome. Running back to the soft arms of Clara, he begs her to leave her husband and make a commitment to him. Clara gently refuses saying she would lose her child. She asks Giorgio to wait until her boy is old enough to go away to school. But Giorgio cannot wait. He beseeches Clara to choose. She cannot and will not. Suddenly Giorgio feels that Clara's love does not run very deep and that it is only one of convenience. He goes back to the village with a sense of inexorable foreboding. Back under the spell of Fosca, whose illness has worsened, he once more rejects her. But when Fosca throws herself into his arms in a public display of emotion upon hearing of his being sent away, Giorgio is caught emotionally as well as by the society he lives in. His commander, thinking that his cousin has been compromised by the handsome officer, challenges Giorgio to a duel. The night before the duel Fosca seduces the now willing Giorgio. In the morning the duel is fought and Giorgio is wounded. During his convalescence he learns that Fosca has died. The woman that he fought so desperately not to love has left him alone. But, he finds solace in the fact that he now knows what it is like to really be loved and love in return.
Mr. Sondheim's score to this dark and intense musical is lush, hypnotic and melancholy. In a word, it's like obsession. Deep, gripping, and unending -- a vortex of feeling from which there is no escape. To offset the many emotionally charged songs, Mr. Sondheim has wisely sprinkled the evening with short, sharp military interludes sung by the soldiers. Chatty and biting, they are musically vastly different in tempo and feel from the rest of the score. They serve as a welcome bit of respite from the drama. But unfortunately, in this production they are not musically delineated enough and the director has staged them so that they meld into the rest of the scenes rather than stand out.
Kate Baldwin is excellent as the sweet-voiced, sweet-natured Clara and Rebecca Hayes stands out in her small role as the mistress. Fran Prisco in the role of Fosca's first husband, Ludovic, was appropriately sebaceous and Mark Jacoby engaging as Colonel Ricci. Although Maree Johnson sings the role of Fosca well, there is not an ounce of sexuality in her performance. And in order to make this role believable and not laughably melodramatic -- Fosca's attraction to Giorgio needs to be immediate and overpoweringly sensual. Unfortunately, Christopher Innvar as Giorgio had pitch problems throughout the entire show which greatly detracted from his performance. (This could have been an isolated incident due to an illness or possibly Mr. Innvar had trouble hearing the orchestra. Alas, the audience never knows the why, only the what.)
With Ms. Johnson's lack of visceral emotion, and the director's tendency to try to decrease the fire in this piece instead of heat it up I cannot recommend this production. I do not feel it does Mr. Sondheim's exquisite tale of obsessive love justice on any level. I will tell you, though to go out and buy the CD of the original Broadway production. The music is glorious, beautifully sung and ultimately cathartic. Mr. Sondheim remains one of the greatest living composers for the musical theatre because he is constantly surprising us, constantly challenging himself and the audience in new and different ways.
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