Passion” is a great, great show. Not just because Stephen Sondheim has finally approved the notion of love as more than a conjugating verb, though that is certainly the show’s chief revelation. It’s great because, with 15 musicals behind him, our theater’s most provocative composer and lyricist is still reinventing the form while honoring it, still writing shows that tell haunting tales while delighting the ear and the eye, still prodding us to think about love even as his protagonist concludes that beauty is skin deep but love, as one character sings, “is as permanent as death.”
It should surprise no one to hear a Sondheim lyric equating love and death. But in “Passion,” it’s no morbid sentiment. Indeed, the show opens with a woman in the throes of ecstasy, singing of “all this happiness” she is feeling. But by the end, 110 astonishing minutes later, another woman will sing those same words with the same sense of rapture but an incomparably deeper meaning, as she proclaims that “to die loved is to have lived.”
It will also probably surprise no one that “Passion” is likely to hold more appeal for Sondheim devotees than for a general audience, even though it’s his best score since “Sunday in the Park With George” a decade ago. It
should have a decent, if unexceptional, run at the Plymouth, though touring prospects seem minimal.
“Passion” takes its cue from the 1981 Ettore Scola film “Passione d’Amore,” which was itself based on an 1869 novel, “Fosca,” by Igino Tarchetti. Giorgio (Jere Shea), a young officer, is transferred from Milan to a distant’Passion’ heats up Drama Desk nominations, page 5.
Outer Crix love ‘She Loves Me’ and ‘Angels in America,’ page 11.
utpost, interrupting his rapturous affair with Clara (Marin Mazzie), a beautiful married woman. When Giorgio shows kindness to his superior officer’s sickly, bookish cousin, the homely Fosca (Donna Murphy) plunges into an obsessive love for him.
The more Giorgio renounces her, the more firmly Fosca resolves to convince him of the superiority of her passion — whatever humiliation she must endure in the convincing. “Loving you is not a choice,” she insists, “it’s who I am.” In this story, he is the beauty, she the beast, and by the end, both have been utterly transformed.
Although “Passion” is more a chamber opera than a musical (the program lists no musical numbers), the show is full of setpieces prompted by the score’s epistolary format. “We’ll make love with our words,” Giorgio promises Clara when he learns of his transfer, and so they do, for a while. But the centerpiece is an ardent love letter Fosca tricks Giorgio into writing her. What begins in embarrassment evolves into reality, and it is testament to the accomplishment of Sondheim and librettist/director James Lapine that they achieve Giorgio’s change without turning Clara into disposable goods.
“Passion” is centrally about different notions of love, many of them ambivalent. It’s certainly the case that Giorgio’s concept of love at the end of the show is entirely different from what it was at the outset. Fosca ennobles him; her final words — in a letter, of course — are, simply, “I’m someone to be loved/And that I learned from you,” a sentiment that will have tremendous resonance for devotees of Sondheim, who until quite recently claimed that he had never been in love.
As he proved with “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods,” Lapine brings clarity and concision to Sondheim’s scores, though I could have done without the regimental chorus, whose rifle-twirling comments on the action are more majorette than major. Nevertheless, this beautiful production — designed by Adrianne Lobel and elegantly lit by Beverly Emmons — is every bit as painterly as “Sunday.”
Perhaps to make up for the fact that she has to spend her first 10 minutes or so onstage nude, Mazzie is the biggest beneficiary of Jane Greenwood’s gorgeous costume designs: Clara appears in one stunning period gown after another, each showing off a porcelain radiance (which accurately describes her singing, as well) to lovelier effect than the last. Fosca is an uncomfortable-making character, yet Murphy, a superbly gifted singer, invests her with heart-rending warmth and selflessness.
Between these two formidable females, Shea is less than great, if at least more than two-dimensional. Less persuasive is Gregg Edelman as Giorgio’s superior. As a military doctor who arranges the first encounter between Giorgio and Fosca, the estimable Tom Aldredge still seems to be finding his way in a role he took over just a few days before opening.
As always, much of the sound we identify as Sondheimian can be attributed to his longtime team of musical director Paul Gemignani and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, whose work here glistens.
One passage in “Passion” describes a flower whose nectar is sweet at the top but poisonous below; the butterfly dwelling too long dies. Sondheim’s relationship with his audience has always been a dangerous liaison, the sweetness of his wordplay and brilliant melodies sometimes resolving in a soul-chilling emptiness. The lyrics of “Passion” are not as relentlessly clever as in his other musicals, and though subsequent hearing will doubtless uncover greater friendliness in the melodies, on first hearing the music often soared without lingering.
And yet to this listener, Sondheim’s newest show stands unchallenged as the most emotionally engaging new musical Broadway has had in years.