One of the hottest tickets in New York right now is the Classic Stage Company revival of Passion, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine. (The show has been extended through April 19th, although most of the remaining performances are sold out.)
As big of a Sondheim fan as I am, I've never really warmed up to Passion, and the current production didn't succeed in changing my mind about the show. Don't get me wrong, the CSC production is extremely professional. In fact, it's about as good a production of the show as we're ever likely to see, including the original Broadway production and televised concert version with Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone.
And yet, for me, the piece remains fundamentally flawed. Yes, the show has many sublime moments, mostly because of Sondheim's rich and cohesive score. I'm particularly fond of "Loving You," "Is This What You Call Love?," "I Read," and "I Wish I Could Forget You." These are gorgeous moments, full of melodic richness, nuance, and...well, passion. But a true appreciation of the show hinges on one key development, one that I have simply never bought in any of the show's incarnations. [SPOILERS BELOW]
The director here is John Doyle, who crafts respectful, dynamic, and sensitive production, creating just the right atmosphere for the piece in terms of both the setting and the emotional feel of the show. One minor misstep on Doyle's part involved having the male ensemble members playing female roles by wrapping shawls around their heads and waists. It felt a tad ridiculous and inconsistent with the show's tone.
The creators couldn't ask for a better cast for Passion, although I did see the show without Melissa Errico, owing to her extended absence from the show due to bronchitis. (Errico's illness has also necessitated a delay in the announced PS Classics recording of this production.) Standby Amy Justman made for a more-than-serviceable Clara in Errico's absence. The productions key assets are Ryan Silverman as Giorgio and Judy Kuhn as Fosca. Silverman has a golden voice, and his acting is a damn sight more convincing than that of original leading man Jere Shea. Kuhn broke my heart upon her very entrance, and she brings a far less harsh and considerably more sympathetic tone to Fosca than Donna Murphy did.But Silverman and Kuhn are burdened by the central flaw of the show: two characters who fail to meet the authors' intentions. The main problem with the show is that Fosca isn't written as appealing enough to justify Giorgio's change of heart at the end. It's not that Fosca is physically unattractive, it's that she has few redeeming personal qualities beyond her propensity to evoke pity. She's selfish, unreasonable, and relentless. Yes, that's the point, I know. But I simply don't see anything in Fosca that would warrant Giorgio ultimately falling in love with her, or at least claiming that he has.
Likewise, the character of Giorgio feels like little more than a collection of surface characteristics, so it's difficult to discern at the end why he makes so many seemingly erratic decisions. Why, for instance, does Giorgio not tell the truth to the Colonel with respect to his relationship and intentions toward Fosca? Why the sudden stubbornness in a character that hasn't exhibited this characteristic throughout the rest of the show? Why does he turn down the transfer that comes through for him? Why does Clara's final letter prompt him to end their relationship? Why does he consent to actually having sex with Fosca?
Feel free to speculate as to answers for these questions in the comment area below. But my ultimate point is that the show, at least from where I sit, is ultimately frustrating because it doesn't make Giorgio's emotional journey clear enough to provide a satisfying conclusion. As I once heard Sondheim say in a live talk he gave at Harvard, musical-theater writers are allowed to challenge their audience members, but not baffle them.
I'm very sorry, Mr. Sondheim, but Passion baffles me. It always has and will very likely continue to do so.