They almost couldn’t get this one recorded. And even though it was finally released by PS Classics this month, it was without the original Clara—just as it was when I visited the Sondheim musical off-Broadway in April. The wonderful Melissa Errico, the opening night Clara subsequently sidelined by vocal issues on March 21st, was unable to participate as her continued voice problems required rest and finally surgery. It’s also been rumoured that her “removal” from the show may have been somewhat contemptuous, which I’m not pleased to hear because a performer of this level deserves better. Plus, it’s a crying shame that Ms. Errico’s performance won’t be preserved via the time capsule of a cast recording. All that being said, the show must go on, and I’ve found in finally getting to listen to the Classic Stage Company’s cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion”—that it’s nearly perfect. Rebecca Luker, who has voiced Clara before in a 2002 production at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center(along with Ms. Kuhn), stepped up to the plate in lieu of Ms. Errico(btw, I saw Errico understudy Amy Justman perform the role when I attended “Passion” in April…go to the April archive to visit that review). So, Ms. Luker had the inclination and the pedigree to save this troubled recording. And I’m so glad that was the case. This rapturous recording of one of Sondheim’s most difficult and misunderstood works is all around marvelous. It stands proudly not only alongside the original Broadway cast recording from 1994(which, btw, ain’t too shabby either), but is probably a step above it, as well. Classic Stage Company chose this John Doyle-directed revival of “Passion” to be its first staged musical in the theatre’s 46-year history. They chose well. This “Passion” ventured into darker places than the 1994 Broadway incarnation, while also managing to find the magic in Sondheim’s lyrics—and locating the musical’s heart. It’s an astounding recording.
There are 42 tracks on this sumptuous 2-disc set, and that alone makes it an even richer experience than the 25-cut Broadway CD release from almost two decades ago. And while that fine recording boasted a standout, star-making performance from the now-renowned Donna Murphy as Fosca, this new one is not only more complete, but more balanced as well. And that is due to the equally outstanding performances of Judy Kuhn in the role of the tortured Fosca, and Ryan Silverman as the young soldier Giorgio. Ms. Kuhn weaves a complex and emotional tapestry with her vocalizations of “I Read”, “I Wish I Could Forget You” and “Loving You”. And Mr. Silverman’s opening duet of “Happiness” with Ms. Luker, when coupled with his second act closing solo of “No One Has Ever Loved Me” is breathtaking in its transitional force. The tone has never been set so forcefully right from the opening song, in trying to push you to comprehend how the character of Giorgio could maybe fall for this sickly, obsessive gorgon. It’s a marvelous achievement that falls greatly into the lap of Ryan Silverman. It’s immediately obvious upon the first listen that Mr. Silverman gets Giorgio in all his complexities and contradictions. Of course, that means that the audience will understand Giorgio better as well. Then there’s Ms. Kuhn, a somewhat softer, and “prettier” Fosca than the one Ms. Murphy gave us in 1994. It’s not that she’s played as some knd of a “looker” now, but it seems to me that John Doyle wanted to cast someone who could temper the ugliness of Fosca in a more subtle way, and that he found that performer in Ms. Kuhn. Judy doesn’t betray the character, but she does succeed in somewhat re-inventing Fosca. And her renditions of Fosca’s key numbers are emotionally devastating…this musical hangs with you. Marin Mazzie was a very memorable Clara in the 1994 cast, and her musical gifts are beyond dispute. Many will unfortunately forget in years to come that there were three different Claras for this off-Broadway production. Ms. Errico opened the show, Ms. Justman finished it, and Ms. Luker performs this cast recording. And Luker is superb in conveying this extremely difficult role…they were lucky to get her.
This is a proud addition to any Sondheim collection, and now sits on my shelf next to other recent, beautiful PS Classics recordings of Stephen Sondheim masterworks such as “Follies”, “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Company”. It will always irk me that Ms. Errico’s vocalization will not get a full preservation. No, disrespect meant to Ms. Justman or Ms. Kuhn, but I’ve included a little taste of Melissa Errico above, as she performs “Happiness” with Ryan Silverman at a promotional event for “Passion” before the show opened. At least we have a little bit. But make no mistake, the recording we did get with Ms. Luker is lush and unforgettable. It’s an absolute must for lovers of cerebral musical theatre, and a no-brainer for collectors of Sondheim’s genius. This recording rates a 9.