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A CurtainUp Review
by Kathryn Osenlund
Passion, directed by Jiri Zizka, is at the Wilma (Avenue of the Arts). It's best to understand right from the start that this isn't Hello Dolly. Stephen Sondheim's concept is about mood. His music, full of tonal color, washes the play in interwoven, repeated compelling motifs, like someone whispering a long, unrelenting tale in your ear. Sung by principals, then echoed in the chorus, the sound forms an invisible fabric that supports the production. Although none of the leads' singing in this evening's show was consistently strong, the music, under the direction of Sean Patrick Flahaven, was.
The musical opened on Broadway on May 9, 1994 for a 280 performance run. Although it won four Tony awards, including best musical, it just didn't do well. According to librettist James Lapine, "People just didn't know how to take it" (Philadelphia Inquirer 20 May '01).
Passion is the story of a soldier, Giorgio (Christopher Innvar) who leaves a love, Clara (Kate Baldwin) behind in Milan, goes off to serve, and meets another woman, Fosca (Maree Johnson). Set in 1863 in Italy, the play is contrived, in nineteenth century fashion, essentially around a structure of letters, including one that is coerced. We know almost nothing about two of the three main characters, with background supplied only on the difficult Fosca. Clearly, Maree Johnson's Fosca has been toned down since Donna Murphy had the role in the New York production.
The military ingredients operate strictly as backdrop despite a few references to maneuvers or other exploits. It's hard to see Giorgio as a soldier, much less as the hero he evidently was. How would this captain ever have had time or inclination to lead or rescue any men? He shows minimal interest in his assignment and in the life of his outpost. There are some funny quips and gripes by various officers, and he is invited to join in their activities, but he just moons around, love-sick and preoccupied, first with one woman and then with the other.
Frank Anderson as Dr. Tambourri, delivers a thoughtful performance. Mark Jacoby puts in a stolid performance as a decent old ranking officer who will eventually challenge Giorgio to a duel, but it doesn't really matter who wins or loses. In a story it ought to matter. But this is not really a story. What we have is neither the story of a soldier nor the story of three people, but a construct.
The piece sets up a dialectic on the subject of love. Is one love better than another love? Is needy desperation evidence of depth? Is happy love lightweight? Which is superior: conventional love or neurotic love? And can a person ever really choose? The dice are loaded here and clearly the argument is aimed at making Giorgio's choice the right one. The play even cheats on its own question by introducing an unexplained interlude in which Clara bids goodbye to a man in Milan. Is it her husband? Another lover?
In a somber play about choosing or being drawn to the dark side, Giorgio becomes the victim of Fosca's love. He makes a too-quick reversal from hate to love, instantly deciding that the love of a near-stalker suffering from hysterics is unconditional, "No one has ever loved me as deeply as you." Insufficient motivation is shown for him to embrace her compulsion, and for her illness to become his illness. In many traditional musicals there is little call for depth, but in what appears to be a psychological piece intertwined with music, shouldn't more reason be given?
Passion is about something pulling, and the music pulls you in. The lyrics exert force, turning over the course of the play, to connote different things at different times, supplying an unrealized irony to the innocence of their first utterance, and gathering power. Even if the story is truncated as the hero capitulates --from hate to love in the blink of an eye-- the music and lyrics suck you in. And the stage is engrossing; it is hard to take your eyes off it, designed as it is with scrims and projections, which sometimes look painterly.
Passion opens with a remembered bright love scene and then begins its descent into a dark world, not of passion, but of obsession. It is a difficult, but memorable show and one that grows on you after it's over