Theater review by Adam Feldman. Classic Stage Company (Off Broadway). Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Dir. John Doyle. With Judy Kuhn, Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico. 1hr 45mins. No intermission.
“Beauty is power, longing a disease,” sings Fosca, the ugly and sickly antiheroine of Passion, and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 musical proves her right on the second claim at least. Fosca’s consumptive version of love, focused with overwhelming intensity on a handsome young soldier named Giorgio, is both wasting and contagious. At first, Giorgio feels sorry for her, and later he despises her. But in time—“how quickly pity turns to love”—he comes to share her morbid ardor. John Doyle’s production of Passion at Classic Stage Company is in many ways beautiful; alas, it falls short on the longing.
Even among Sondheim devotees, Passion has always been divisive. Sondheim’s score deliberately eschews the wit, irony and ambivalence that are characteristic of much of his best work; the music emerges, without applause points or intermission, as undulations of lugubrious arioso. In a disarming introduction to Passion in his lyrics collection Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim concedes that the show’s lack of comedy, dance and traditional Broadway song styles puts it in danger of seeming “earnest, monotonous and humorless.” What rescues the show from that fate, he suggests, is the fevered vitality of its central figure: “Fosca’s manic obsessiveness supplies the necessary energy, her volatility the variety, her unpredictable hysteria the surprise and her sophisticated intelligence the biting humor.”
That is an enormous weight to place on any woman playing Fosca, but Judy Kuhn seems capable of bearing it. A star of the original Broadway productions of Chess and Les Misérables, Kuhn has one of her generation’s most forceful voices; performing the title song from Rags on the 1987 Tony telecast, she conveyed wild self-pity to breathtaking effect. Yet in Doyle’s production, she seems strangely contained. Kuhn’s sallow, gloomy Fosca lurks around Giorgio, Gollum-like, but rarely seizes Passion by the throat. Her singing is proficient but lacks the element of risk; the agony in her moans sounds measured. Describing Fosca to his beautiful lover, Clara, Giorgio writes of “the wretchedness and the suffering, the desperation of that poor unhappy creature—the embarrassment.” Kuhn performs with intelligence and skill, but she doesn’t embarrass herself.
It is possible, of course, that this downscaled Fosca is an intentional strategy on Kuhn or Doyle’s part. The English director’s previous accounts of Sondheim (including Sweeney Todd, Company and Road Show) have demonstrated a certain aversion to showiness. Perhaps he worried that a more overtly monstrous Fosca would seem ridiculous on the CSC’s intimate thrust stage. And in other regards, Doyle uses the space very well. His geometric blocking, set on a grid of black marble squares, is pleasingly crisp. The cast sings finely, backed by a luxurious nine-piece orchestra—larger than that of the recent Broadway revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music—in a newly installed loft.
In the absence of Fosca’s gravity, Passion’s other stars pull their own weight admirably. Ryan Silverman’s Giorgio begins in the smiley, faintly unctuous mode of Raoul from The Phantom of the Opera (a role that he has played), but gradually emerges as the visceral center of the production. And Melissa Errico, as Clara, suggests subtle ripples of deeper feeling behind her golden gown and silvery soprano. Stephen Bogardus and others provide suitable support playing soldiers as stiff as their uniforms.
But Passion is Fosca: difficult, bookish, needy, unusual. It will never win everyone’s love; to win anyone’s it must, like Fosca, draw us in by risking humiliation. Although Doyle’s protective revival takes many smart steps, it doesn't make the heart leap.
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