Before directing “The Color Purple” put him on the Broadway radar, Gary Griffin received the most attention for his Chicago work on scaled-down versions of big musicals, including a reinterpretation of “Pacific Overtures” and a two-piano version of “My Fair Lady.” But Griffin is by no means all concept, all the time. His production of “Passion,” at Chicago Shakespeare’s black-box second space, is all faithful straightforwardness, putting forth the decidedly unradical argument that what Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musically sumptuous but offbeat tale of obsessive love really needs is… to be put on its feet and sung beautifully.
Griffin certainly pulls that off, with the help of excellent performances, led by Ana Gasteyer as the operatically odd Fosca. This is a lovely production, delicate and tuneful, staged without directorial fussiness and with a great deal of polish. No, it doesn’t uncover new solutions to the musical’s limitations — it’s still a very controlled show about uncontrolled emotions, fevered adoration put under a character-based microscope. But that’s OK. Griffin focuses on the positive, of which there’s plenty.
The five-piece orchestra provides sufficient richness, combining with the intimate environment to emphasize the show’s natural chamber musical qualities. “Passion” is already a stripped-down show, all about the characters and the melodies and not about the scenery, which in Eugene Lee’s expertly minimalist approach employs empty space filled with just a few essential accoutrements: a curtain, a roll-on bed, a dining table.
Former “Saturday Night Live” regular Gasteyer has been gradually making a name for herself as a musical theater lead — she played Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway and in Chicago. She demonstrates great depth and range here as the sickly, ugly, manipulative Fosca, a fascinating but also off-putting character who falls so intensely for soldier Giorgio (Adam Brazier) that he ultimately chooses her unrelenting love over his more traditionally romantic feelings for married lover Clara (Kathy Voytko).
Gasteyer keeps it mostly in check, but she does naturally possess the edgy energy of a comic, and her Fosca makes a first impression quite different from original star Donna Murphy’s laconic weakness and defeatism. Gasteyer’s Fosca is more of a neurotic, filled with more self-loathing than self-pity, and enough of a convincing stalker that her original advances on Giorgio deservedly bring a look of fear to Brazier’s face.
Gasteyer brings purposeful nervousness to Fosca in her early numbers, rocking back and forth for “I Read” in her first sequence with Giorgio. This enables her to track Fosca’s emotional path with increasing calmness, so that when she sings her beautiful final songs — particularly the Finale’s duet with Brazier — she’s a woman for whom love has brought genuine inner peace even though it hasn’t brought health.
Voytko and Brazier are also very strong, the picture of a perfect couple from their opening scene of lovemaking, lit with a painterly touch by Paul Miller. Brazier captures Giorgio’s puzzlement at his own emerging feelings for Fosca, but he sticks with that expression a bit longer than he should. Voytko provides perhaps the most unimprovable performance — her love for Giorgio is genuine, neither calculated nor especially needy. She’s so very real, up against the almost otherworldly fervor of Fosca’s passion.
For a show that finds its best moments at its most dramatically forthright, the one overdone element is Fosca’s makeup, which covers Gasteyer’s face in an ashen white. As intended, it clearly turns her into a ghostly figure, a type of living dead. It’s also a stylized way to signal ugliness without having to puts warts on her face. But to be blunt, it brings to mind Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
It’s an over-the-top touch in a production that’s otherwise unflinching and convincing.