Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sondheim at 75 (Part Seven)

This review originally appeared in The Metro Herald in August 2002:

Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Obsession
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

In lesser hands, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 musical play, Passion, might have looked like this:

Setting: A suburban high school in the present day.

Characters: A homely, sickly freshman girl who has a crush on the captain of the basketball team, who is dating the head cheerleader.

Plot: Homely girl follows the basketball captain everywhere, sends him e-mail messages dozens of times a day. Jock complains to his cheerleader girlfriend, who starts to doubt his sanity. Homely girl, meanwhile, has recorded wholly imagined, lurid stories about her and the basketball captain in her diary, which is discovered by her father. Father takes diary to the basketball coach, who benches the captain, denying him the scholarship he desires to go to Duke. Cheerleader abandons him for a football player, he ends up in a backwater junior college, and homely girl finds happiness among her collection of hand-blown glass animals.

Luckily for us, this musical was written not by the creative team that gave us Grease but by the team that gave us Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. Instead of a mediocre romp among the nightmarish social milieu of the modern American high school, we have a profound and an intense psychological drama made by and for adults.

It is this adult drama we have now at the Kennedy Center, directed by Eric Schaeffer and starring Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, and Michael Cerveris. It is an astounding production that shatters conventions.

For some reason, it is said that even Sondheim fans dislike Passion. This is incredible. No, better, it is incroyable (the French say it with so much more, well, passion). Austere in its way, yet highly complex both musically and lyrically, its plot and its individual musical numbers are built on a foundation that defies expectations. Still, its characters are built on recognizable “types” that could, as indicated, be transplanted to another, more mundane setting with little difficulty. It has soaring melodies, intense emotions, comic relief, colorful costumes, a stylized yet stark and naturalistic set design. I have to ask: What’s not to like?

Yes, Passion is a challenging show. If you come to the theatre to see a musical with expectations of being merely entertained, this is not the show for you. There are no song hits to whistle on your way back to the lobby. But the words and the music will nag at you for hours and days after the final curtain.

In its essence, Passion is a play about how emotions—in particular, love—are beyond our control, certainly beyond our reason. The song "Loving You (is not a choice)" expresses this most directly.

In a nutshell, Giorgio (Cerveris) is a decorated army captain in Italy in the 1860s. He is having an affair with the married Clara (Luker), whose name translates as “clear.” Ordered to a remote provincial base, Giorgio encounters Fosca (Kuhn), whose name translates as “foggy” or “dark.” Fosca is gaunt, thin, pallid, and asocial, literally a bundle of exposed nerve endings. The cousin of the commanding officer, she is the object of jokes for the other officers. She also falls obsessively in love with Giorgio, who, being the outsider, has shown some polite attention to her. She follows him everywhere, demanding that he love her with the same intensity as she loves him. He rejects her advances but eventually, without full comprehension of why, he succumbs.

On the surface, this could look like a message of hope to the obsessives among us: If you just stalk hard enough, the object of your desire will come around. But such a message does not hold up, because Fosca’s obsession, well-intentioned as it might be, holds the destructive force of a tornado.

Passion is an intimate show. The auditorium at the Eisenhower Theatre may be too large for it. (A companion who sat in the balcony at the same performance that I attended described the show to me in such a way that it seemed we saw two entirely different shows. People around him tittered and giggled at the kabuki-like grand gestures that, from a distance, looked comic and overdrawn. Those of us in the orchestra, closer to the stage, observed the earnest intensity of the players. There was no irony apparent, and we laughed only at those moments that were meant to be funny.)

Passion focuses on the minds and lives of three people; the other characters exist only to provide explanations, color, or commentary on the central action.

Schaeffer has succeeded in balancing the three sides of this triangle. There is no “stand-out” performance because the three principals are so evenly matched. This is so even though the character of Fosca has the potential of dominating the show, just as she comes to dominate the lives of Giorgio and Clara. Schaeffer has been careful to adjust Passion’s textures so that Giorgio, Clara, and Fosca are more-or-less equals in the final execution.

One way in which he does this is through the lighting design of Howell Binkley, who uses pinpoint spots to keep our attention focused on the principals, but in such a way that we recognize them as atomized individuals, who wish to be part of a larger (societal?) whole but whose lives are ultimately isolated.

Similarly, Derek McLane’s set design gives us plenty of space and air. Light flows through it in distinct shafts. The spaciousness creates a sense of aridity, intensifying the isolation the characters feel. (There is so much symbolism in the lighting and set design that it might require a college seminar to discuss it all. Let’s start with the ruins of the castle on the hill. . . .)

Two hours without intermission might seem like a long time to spend watching a musical play with no dancing girls, no comic secondary romantic duo, no crashing chandeliers or Marine helicopters. But the time goes by imperceptibly, so caught up are we in the story.

Passion is one of the few shows in the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration that has not been nearly sold-out from the time the box office opened. Take advantage of this lapse of judgment by other theatre lovers and get tickets to the next available performance.

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