Stephen Sondheim’s musical drama, Passion, has divided audiences and to a lesser degree critics since it first appeared in 1994. Widely considered to be a commercial failure, it nevertheless won the Tony™ Award for Best Musical. Yet, many audience members hated it, and one memorable disturbance found an audience member yelling that the leading character should go ahead and die already. Passion was written after what many consider Mr. Sondheim’s prime years, though James Lapine, his collaborator on his last hit, Into the Woods, both wrote the book and directed the Broadway production.
Even so, it’s somewhat surprising that Ion Theatre’s production of Passion is its San Diego premiere. Its leading character, Fosca, is in its own way as much catnip for actress-singers as Gypsy’s Mama Rose (though, Rose is a fair amount more sympathetic – the Broadway performer, Laura Benanti, recently had a good time dressing up as Fosca and spoofing her way through Times Square for a theatre insider’s video – she would have received a better reception had she dressed up as Rose). The show plays well in intimate spaces and contains at least one really gorgeous song – “Loving You” – which Audra McDonald included in her concert last fall at the Balboa Theatre.
Under Kim Strassburger’s steady directorial hand, Ion’s production digs into Passion’s operatic score with relish and presents its characters as multi-layered and flawed but very human. Audiences here should appreciate the quality of what they’re seeing but I doubt if they become as passionate as to protest what they are seeing.
And, that’s all to the good. Passion explores the boundaries between obsession and love, a common theme in Mr. Sondheim’s musicals. You can find this boundary as being problematic in a whole list of these musicals, from Gypsy, where Mama Rose loves her daughters but obsesses about their success; to Company, where Bobby obsesses about his ability to love anyone; to Sweeney Todd, where the “demon barber” obsesses about the loss of his wife, his true love; to Merrily We Roll Along, where Franklin obsesses about success and confuses sycophancy with love; and even to Into the Woods where a number of the fairy-tale characters portray their obsessive actions as being justified by love.
But, I have to say that Passion takes this exploration to a higher level than any of its predecessors. It opens with a passionate sex scene between Giorgio (Jason Heil), an Army Captain, and Clara (Katie Whalley), his lover. The ground shifts abruptly when immediately thereafter Giorgio departs for his new assignment in a remote town. Once arrived, he discovers an all-male domain, whose numbingly boring existence is broken only by the outcries of Fosca (Sandy Campbell), the sickly cousin of Colonel Ricci (Ruff Yeager), the commanding officer.
Eager to please his new commander, Giorgio learns that Fosca loves to read and offers to share his books with her. But, Fosca takes this gesture as indicating romantic interest and immediately begins to obsess about the handsome captain and to plot how he might become her lover.
The emotions are all very operatic, and Mr. Sondheim has written a score to match, even to the point of populating the cast with an octet of voices (Bryan Banville, Kevin Burroughs, Andy Collins, Patrick Gates, Nadia Guevara, Ralph Johnson, Brandon Sherman, and Christina Wenning) who not only play secondary roles but who serve as a chorus commenting on the action. And, the action they are commenting on is a common one in opera, where the male lead obsesses about loving and winning the female lead, but turn it on its head and make the female the one who obsesses and all of a sudden that obsession becomes entirely unacceptable.
Love is blind, but passion is mania.
As Fosca, Ms. Campbell embodies what can be the coldness and cruelty of the obsessive mind, displaying warmth mostly as a means of manipulation. As Clara, Ms. Whalley counters Fosca’s cool demeanor with one of warmth, until she becomes convinced that her rival may be winning the battle for Giorgio’s heart. The chorus members generally find the resulting intrigue to be a delicious relief from the tedium of their surroundings. [php snippet=1]Ion’s production is generally dark and monochromatic, particularly Claudio Raygoza’s jigsaw puzzle set and Karen Filijan’s lighting. This tone is countered by music director Mark Danisovszky’s romantic piano accompaniment and Jeanne Reith’s elegant costumes for Clara and Mr. Banville, while in the role of a former suitor of Fosca’s. My colleague, Welton Jones, would probably throw a fit over how the ranks on the military uniforms were indicated, but the fact that the officers held rank according to their ages worked for me.
Passion is performed without intermission and without a song listing in the program. It seems clear that its authors wanted the audience to perceive it as being of a piece and on that score Ion’s production succeeds admirably. Those hoping to save the San Diego Opera might well come and see how intimate and effective an operatic performance might be.