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March 6, 2013

Why This "Passion" Failed to Seduce Me


Well, I guess it’s official:  I am truly not a John Doyle gal. The Scottish- born director has earned all kinds of kudos from critics (most notably the New York Times’ Ben Brantley) for his innovative staging of musicals, particularly those by Stephen Sondheim. But not from me.

I’ve acknowledged that, as the wife of a longtime pit musician, I might have been biased against Doyle’s revivals of Sweeney Todd in 2005 and Company in 2006 because his signature innovation for those productions was replacing the traditional orchestra with actors who could play instruments and accompany themselves.

But I’d read that Doyle had abandoned that gimmick for the revival of Sondheim’s Passion, which opened at Classic Stage Company last week, and I was looking forward to this show because it has always struck me as Sondheim’s most heartfelt.

So I was happy to see an eight-member band playing in a new skybox space the theater built to accommodate the musicians, some of whom are our friends. But, alas, I was disappointed by the overall production.

Doyle is most celebrated for the intimacy of his productions, which originally reflected the limited budgets he had at the small theater he lead in the south of England. I’ve no problem with intimacy (click here and here to read my praise for two other small-scale productions) but Doyle’s minimalist stagings also strip away most of the emotion from his shows. And when you strip away the emotion from Passion, there ain’t much left.

The story, adapted from the movie and epistolary novel “Passione d’Amore,” centers around Giorgio, an Italian military officer in the mid-19th century who becomes entangled with two women: Clara, a beautiful married woman with whom he is having an affair; and Fosca, a homely invalid who becomes obsessed with him.

But the musical’s true subject is the meaning of romantic love and its ability to incite both ecstasy and agony. Those themes inspired Sondheim to compose some of the most sumptuous music that he's ever written—“Happiness,” “I Wish I Could Forget You,” “Loving You”—filled with seductive melodic lines that mimic the swoon of falling uncontrollably in love. And the score remains as intoxicating as ever.

James Lapine’s book is a little awkward (it’s not easy to write for a character—Clara—whose main contributions are limited to the letters she writes) but the story is clear, moves quickly (there is no intermission) and is wrenching.

In the original 1994 production, Marin Mazzie played Clara, Donna Murphy won (as she should have) a Tony for her portrayal of Fosca and Jere Shea, a name less known to me, played Giorgio.  I was so shattered by their performances that I couldn’t move when the show ended and people had to squeeze around me to get out of our row at the theater.

This time out, Giorgio is played by Ryan Silverman (click here to read more about him), Melissa Errico portrays Clara and Judy Kuhn, who won praise for the role in a 2002 Kennedy Center production of Passion (click here to read more about her), takes on the major challenge of Fosca. 

They are all talented people and yet, although the Classic Stage is a far more intimate playing space than the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, which was called the Plymouth when the original production played there, I felt removed from what was happening to the love-longing trio. And I’m blaming Doyle for that.

Surrounded on three sides, CSC’s small thrust stage area is notoriously difficult to decorate and block and yet I’ve seen some terrific stuff there with smartly imagined sets. This production, designed by Doyle himself, has a set so bare-bones that key pieces are missing. 

Passion opens with Giorgio and Clara in bed after rapturous lovemaking but in Doyle’s staging, they are on the floor because there is no bed.  Nor is there one when a dying Fosca begs Giorgio to spend a night with her.  Instead, Kuhn and Silverman are forced to play the scene in straight-backed chairs.

In both cases, the staging undercuts the passions of the moment. Doyle may be trying to suggest that everything happening onstage is just Giorgio’s fractured memory of those events but it’s unlikely that even the most tortured mind would forget to include a bed.

But even more distressing is the way Doyle has directed his actors. Fosca is a particularly tricky role to pull off. Nearly every description of her in the play stresses how frail and unappealing she is and yet the actress who plays Fosca must project the inner steel that allows her to pursue Giorgio and the inner grace that makes it plausible for her to win him over.  

Audiences reportedly laughed at the character during previews of the original production until Sondheim added the song that explained her motivations (the achingly beautiful declaration “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am”).  But Kuhn comes across as more persistent than passion-driven.  And that difference between being merely desirous and being unabashedly enthralled is what this show is all about.

Similarly, the success of Passion rises and falls on the journey that Giorgio takes as he discovers his true feelings for Fosca. But the arc is aborted in this version: first he is repelled by her, then, suddenly, he is inextricably drawn to her.  We, the audience, are cheated out of seeing him work through that transformation.

When my husband K and I got home from the theater, I dug out our DVD of the original production that was filmed for the old American Playhouse TV series. And watching it over this past weekend, I was able to surrender, once again, to the true pleasures of Passion.

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