By Judd Hollander
There is a fine line between love, hate, obsession and disgust. Such is the ground explored in the 1994 musical Passion (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, based on the film Passione D'Amore, directed by Ettore Scola, originally directed on Broadway by James Lapine) now being presented Off-Broadway by the Classic Stage Company. While the story and indeed the entire cast tackle the subject head-on, a key plot point and some directorial missteps threaten to derail the emotional impact of the production.
Giorgio Bachetti (Ryan Silverman), a young Army Captain is happily enjoying the
company of his married mistress Clara (Melissa Errico), when he reveals he is
to be transferred to a remote outpost. Promising to write to her every day, the
two being madly in love, he departs and soon finds himself in his new surroundings. A non-drinker and avid book
reader, Giorgio doesn't quite fit in with the other officers, all nice fellows,
if a little boorish - men who spend their free time talking about women,
repeating the latest rumors and good-naturedly complaining about the cooking of
Sergeant Lombardi (Orville Mendoza). Giorgio does however catch the
attention of the company commander Colonel Ricci (Stephen Bogardus), a rather
genial sort with an appropriately authoritative air. Giorgio also soon learns
of the existence of Fosca (Judy Kuhn), Ricci's terribly withdrawn and sensitive
cousin and a woman battered by illnesses, both physical and emotional. She is
also, to put it mildly, rather plan and drab looking. Seeing in Giorgio a kindred
spirit, the two both knowing the value of a sunrise or the beauty of a flower,
Fosca becomes less of a recluse in order to spend time with Giorgio, the young
man gallantly offering his hand to her in friendship. Milan, Italy
But Fosca has more than friendship on her mind, having fallen in love with Giorgio at first sight. Her desperate and cloying attitude towards him repels Giorgio to no end. Yet as Tambourri (Tom Nelis), the company doctor, explains, it is Giorgio's visits with Fosca that are literally giving her the will to live and a reason to struggle on against her various debilitating conditions. Finding himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Giorgio soon finds himself becoming smothered by Fosca's attempts at affection, ones which soon begin to take their toll on his mental health and which also threaten his relationship with Clara.
Passion is an intensely intimate and personal tale and works wonderfully in a technical sense as presented in the relatively small CSC space, making one feel as if they're right in the midst of the action; whether it is Giorgio or Clara making love - a moment which opens the show - or in Fosca's private chamber during one of many confrontations and realizations. Sondheim and Lapine pull no punches here, showing in words and music how quickly one's emotions, feelings and perceptions of another can change, with reason all too often going by the wayside to follow a course one knows deep down is the right thing to do, even if no one else may see it that way.
Sadly, much of what is presented is ultimately undone by a key plot point that doesn't really work. When Giorgio is in
on leave, Clara, who has learned all about Fosca through her lover's letters to
her, as well as seeing the stress and emotional toll it's taking on him, begs
him not to go back. However Giorgio refuses saying it's his duty to keep taking
care of Fosca. Yet moments before this scene, Giorgio demonstrated his extreme
disgust of Fosca's obsession with him as well as his desperate desire to get
away from her. As such, his subsequent reactions do not make sense. Seeing those
two scenes, one after the other, makes one feel as if something was cut from
the play; the immediate effect of which being the sudden removal of the
audience from the immediacy of the situation. It's a problem from which the
show never fully recovers.
The three leads are all excellent. Kuhn steals the show as Fosca, a beaten-down woman who has suffered great heartbreak throughout her life and, as she says to Giorgio at one point, doesn't know how to love. The actress delivers a superlative portrayal here with her every step and movement showing the pain she is carrying inside. While Fosca's actions towards Giorgio may be way over the line – in reality she's not far removed from being a stalker – she does cause Giorgio to realize that love is more simply a word to be bandied about in the heat of passion. Rather, it's one which is linked irrevocably to reasonability and commitment. Situations Giorgio had never seriously considered before now.
Errico fine as Clara, seemingly little more than a pretty woman in the beginning, but one who has a keen intuition and who begins to see, long before Giorgio does, the effect Fosca has on him. Clara's also terribly realistic when it comes to her trysts with Giorgio. Loving him whenever she can steal away from her husband, but fearful of what would happen if their relationship became known.
Silverman makes a good Giorgio. A bit bland in the beginning, and perhaps deliberately so, he quickly bring forth a character with the soul of a poet. He's also a person caught between two very different women, while struggling with feelings he cannot fully comprehend. A scene between Giorgio and Fosca concerning the writing of a love letter is particularly wrenching to watch.
Elsewhere, Bogardus does fine work as the officious and congenial Colonel Ricci, while Nelis is very good as Doctor Tambourri - someone who wants to make sure Fosca has the best care possible, but who have may have overstepped his bounds while trying to do so. The rest of the cast, all of whom are pretty interchangeable, do their jobs quite well.
John Doyle's direction is a bit of mixed bag. While he keeps the story moving well and has a firm grasp of the material, he's unable to get the show past the plot problem mentioned above. There's also a somewhat strange moment early on where Giorgio smiles noticeably while relating to Clara his pity and contempt for Fosca after their first meeting. It's an action which is incongruous to the character and also rather distracting. One wonders whether the actor or director came up with the idea and why it was ultimately used.
The Sondheim score is enjoyable to hear, though none of the musical is particularly memorable. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are excellent. It also helps that all of the actors have strong singing voices, with the entire cast - especially Errico, Kuhn, Silverman and Bogardus - bringing forth the emotional elements of the songs. Doyle's design of the show is fine and the costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are a joy to behold. Lighting by Jane Cox is nicely effective, as is the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.
Passion is a musical that has a lot to say about the human heart, about the true meanings of beauty and responsibility and most of all, about love. Yet for the tale to truly work it must be continuously believable and for one glaring moment at least, it fails in that regard. The performances, though, definitely make this a show worth seeing.
Featuring: Stephen Bogardus (Colonel Ricci), Jeffry Denman (Lieutenant Barri/Mother), Melissa Errico (Clara), Jason Michael Evans (Private Augenti/Mistress) Ken Krugman (Lieutenant Torasso/Father), Judy Kuhn (Fosca), Orville Mendoza (Sergeant Lombardi) Tom Nelis (Doctor Tambourri), Will Reynolds (Major Rizzolli/Ludovic), Ryan Silverman (Giorgio)
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Based on the film Passione D'Amore, directed by Ettore Scola
Originally Directed on Broadway by James Lapine
Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: Jane Cox
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Associate Costume Design: Christopher Vergara
Associate Lighting Design: Bradley King
Associate Sound Design: Nicholas Pope, Joshua Reid
Associate Set Design: David L. Arsenault
Associate Music Design: Greg Jarrett
Associate Director: Adam John Hunter
Make-up Design: Angelina Avallone
Hair Consultants: J Jared Janas & Rob Greene
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Managing Director: Jeff Griffin
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Associate Stage Manager: Claudia Lynch
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Musical Direction by Rob Berman
Directed and Designed by John Doyle
Presented by Classic Stage Company
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or www.classicstage.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission
April 19, 2013