Why Can't I Love 'Passion'?

3.26.2013

By Scott Hocker

Despite years of trying, and an excellent new revival, I still can't quite love Sondheim's musical

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

There are thorny Sondheim shows, such as Assassins, a rollicking, poignant snapshot of the dark side of the American dream. There are rarely produced Sondheim shows, like Pacific Overtures, a well-crafted tale of the colonialization of 19th-century Japan.

No Sondheim piece, though, to me, is as difficult to mount as Passion, co-written with James Lapine, and currently playing its first New York City revival, at Classic Stage Company through April 19

The original production debuted on Broadway in 1994. Through rhapsodic song, the plot follows an Italian soldier, Giorgio, in the midst of an affair with a married woman, Clara, during the mid-1800s. He is transferred to the hinterlands, where a sickly, unattractive woman, Fosca, falls relentlessly in love with him—and he, in turn, eventually succumbs to her impassioned advances.

The initial production left me chilled despite the titanic performance of Donna Murphy as the possessive Fosca. Over the years, I immersed myself in Passion’s score. I watched the PBS video recording of the original Broadway production repeatedly. The music burrows deeply the more you experience it. Still, I longed to see a live production that made me feel for—or believe—these characters.

The new Passion at Classic Stage Company comes close. The theater is miniscule and the staging by John Doyle, a minimalist Sondheim interpreter, is intimate, featuring a stripped-down orchestra and chairs and moving drapes as essential props. 

The central trio of Giorgio, Clara and Fosca, as played by Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and Judy Kuhn, respectively, is dedicated to the outsized emotions Passion required. Kuhn especially captures the nuance of her character, emphasizing Fosca’s calculated maneuvering of Giorgio. Hearing Sondheim’s lilting score sung so well in such close quarters is a rare treat.

Still, I left the theater confounded. Rapturous as the production was, it was never theatrically transporting in the way that the rest of Sondheim’s work can be. I am even more fond of Passion after seeing this production. But it might be forever better in my mind than it is produced on the stage. 

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