Loving Sondheim isn’t always easy, and “Passion” is certainly amongst his more difficult works. But it’s far from his only demanding show. Try explaining to someone, who’s used to leaving musicals giddy and tapping their toes, that they should embrace the melancholy and darkness of productions of Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park with George” or “Into the Woods”—and they still may not be able to grasp it. I couldn’t quite grasp the cerebral nature of “Into the Woods” when I first experienced it on Broadway in 1988. At that time I was 22 years old and had seen a whole lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and barely any Stephen S. I soon realized that Webber is easy, Webber is crowd-pleasing—Sondheim requires a bit of maturity and a little bit of work. Of course, I fully recognize his genius now. And I was thrilled to re-visit “Passion” at the East Village’s Classic Stage Company—the first musical the theatre has produced in its 45 year history. And they chose very well. I attended the original Broadway “Passion” nineteen years back in the spring of 1994, and although that show won 4 Tonys(including Best Musical)and received positive endorsement from most critics—audiences were not as kind. In fact, the show that made Donna Murphy(the original Fosca)a star closed after only 280 performances—which gives it the distinction of being the shortest-running production ever to win the Best Musical Tony. But I was fond of it from the get-go, and I thought Ms. Murphy’s performance was superb(she grabbed the Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical Tony for her efforts). Its brand-spankin’ new, first official New York revival opened in March for a limited run under the guidance of the renowned John Doyle. Doyle made a NYC Sondheim splash twice in the last few years with his Tony-winning revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company”(I saw both). Those Doyle productions were famous(infamous?)for having the cast double as the orchestra and play their own instruments. It was a gimmick that worked wonders for those shows. No such conceit for Doyle’s “Passion”, however—it employs an actual orchestra. And it also boasts incredible, heart-breaking performances from Judy Kuhn as Fosca and Ryan Silverman as Giorgio.
“Passion” is set in Italy in 1863, and it opens with a young soldier(a star-making turn from Mr. Silverman)making love to his beautiful partner(a fine Amy Justman as Clara, taking over the role from the ill Melissa Errico for the remainder of its short run). As they sing of their “Happiness”, little do we realize that they are carrying on a secret affair—for we are soon told that Clara is married to another man. They say their goodbyes, with promises of frequent letters, as Giorgio is transferred to a distant military outpost. It’s there that he eventually makes the acquaintance of Fosca(a marvelous Ms. Kuhn), who is holed up in a room at the residence of his commanding officer. Fosca is the commander’s cousin, and Giorgio is told that she’s very ill. He actually hears her before meeting her via her ghastly screaming. Giorgio offers to lend her some books, and upon retrieving them sees Fosca for the very first time. Fosca is an unattractive and sickly woman, but is pleased to be introduced to someone who shares her passion for reading(the haunting “I Read”). While Giorgio continues his correspondence with Clara, he also takes friendly, conversational garden walks with Fosca. His commander is overwhelmingly pleased that Fosca has a friendly companion, but Giorgio’s fellow soldiers become jealous when it appears that he is receiving special treatment. Things become increasingly complicated when Fosca falls madly in love with Giorgio. Upon the occasion of a short leave to visit Clara, Fosca intercepts him at the train station—and begs him to return soon. Giorgio rejects Fosca, and pledges his devotion to Clara. Fosca mocks him when she learns that Clara is married, and Giorgio severs ties with Fosca for a time. However, Giorgio agrees to visit her sickbed when Fosca’s doctor assures him that she is deathly ill. But Fosca, ecstatic upon his arrival, continues to obsessively pine for Giorgio, which hastens his exit once again. We learn after this that Fosca was once married to an Austrian count, who eventually revealed that his heart was not where it seemed. Could a handsome, successful young man actually be attracted to, or even fall in love with, an ailing and homely woman?
Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” was adapted from a 1981 Italian film entitled “Passione d’Amore” from Ettore Scola. I’ve never seen it, but I keep hoping that a DVD copy will eventually be available. Judy Kuhn, an experienced stage performer who is probably best known for singing the Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s “Pocahontas” is touching, haunting and in gorgeous voice in the role of Fosca. More conventionally pretty than original Fosca Donna Murphy, Ms. Kuhn is lit to look gaunt and to imply a sickly, yellowish-green pallor. Ms. Murphy was presented as more out-and-out gargoyle back in 1994. Also, the intimacy of the CSC’s 180-seat theatre space greatly enhances the power of this operatic show. The cavernous nature of the 1080-seat Plymouth Theatre(now renamed the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)had its assets too back in 1994, but the smaller house internalizes the emotions in a way the original Broadway production could not. And I can’t remember much about Jere Shea from the first production, but his voice is wonderful on the cast recording I just re-listened to. However, Ryan Silverman is a wonderfully nuanced Giorgio, who managed to enrapture the capacity audience I was amongst throughout this 105-minute, no intermission revival. I was sorry to miss a bronchitis-stricken Melissa Errico as Clara, but Ms. Justman is a robust(countering Fosca’s shriveled appearance nicely)and worthy replacement. Plus, there will be a new cast recording come summer—so eventually I’ll be able to at least hear Ms. Errico’s take on the character(Clara was played by Marin Mazzie in the 1994 Broadway version). The set design is foreboding, yet minimalist. John Doyle’s direction is pointed, yet unobtrusive—this is an actor’s piece, and the welcome orchestra is nestled in a box above the audience at stage right. I was seated in the next-to-last chair at the corner of stage left, but there’s not a bad view in the cozy off-Broadway house. One misstep in this update is the clumsy choice of having the soldiers double as women briefly during “Act II”, but I’m uncertain if this had anything to do with Ms. Errico’s departure and Ms. Justman’s promotion, or not. But overall, this is a scintillating “Passion” revival, that is scheduled through just this weekend. Tickets have been scarce, but I strongly suggest you give it a try. In the meantime you can enjoy Judy Kuhn above, performing “Loving You” from “Passion”, during a recent promotional event. I foresee Ms. Kuhn taking some trinkets home in the coming awards-heavy weeks of the theatre season. And probably Mr. Silverman too. This show rates an 8