Amazing Journey

Sondheim's Musicals Show Love

Associated Press
Wed Aug 14, 7:17 PM ET
By Michael Kuchwara

WASHINGTON (AP) - Foolish love. Obsessive love. They're not quite the same, but it helps when you have a Stephen Sondheim on hand to explain the differences.

As the Kennedy Center's indispensable, nearly four-month Sondheim Festival draws to a close, the contrast between his "A Little Night Music" and "Passion" is intriguing, enlightening and more than a little touching.

Both shows were winners of the Tony Award for best musical and both demonstrate the composer's amazing range of emotion — "Night Music" with its gently comic tales of mismatched sexual couplings and "Passion" with its unrelieved desperation of the truly besotted.

Yet their Broadway receptions couldn't have been more diverse. "Night Music," which opened in 1973, had a successful New York run, while "Passion" collapsed after a few months in 1994.

It's "Passion," though, that gets the more accomplished revival here, thanks to director Eric Schaeffer's exquisitely focused production that gives careful if not exactly equal attention to its three leading characters: the grimly determined Fosca, willing to die for Giorgio, the handsome military officer who is having an affair with the beautiful and very married Clara.

The director has been blessed with a trio of exceptional singers who also are fine actors: Judy Kuhn as a heartbreaking Fosca; Michael Cerveris, the tormented Giorgio, and Rebecca Luker an appealing, if bewildered Clara.

Set in 19th century Italy, the story, skillfully adapted by James Lapine, never loses track of Fosca's relentless pursuit of Giorgio and his eventual capitulation.

Fosca would not seem to be anyone's ideal lover. A severe, unattractive woman, dressed in black, she has a scarily compulsive quality that would have most men looking for a restraining order rather than a wedding ring. She's the opposite of Clara, a warm, open woman who has thoroughly bewitched Giorgio.

Sondheim's score is as intensely concentrated as Lapine's story. His melodies and lyrics are minimal, almost chaste in their focus on the various permutations of love. And Schaeffer's eloquent take on the show lets you see all the shadings.

Romantic permutations of a different kind can be found in "A Little Night Music," Hugh Wheeler's wry adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night." It deals with a variety of couples, most behaving rather ineptly when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Unfortunately, the actors in director Mark Brokaw's diffuse production run off in several directions. The quartet of chorus members who swirl throughout the action are unnecessarily hammy, and, worse than that, often muffle some of Sondheim's wittiest lyrics.

And Blair Brown, in the pivotal role of Desiree, the stage actress who enchants all comers, seems a bit too sturdy to play a woman who wistfully celebrates her own fragility in "Send in the Clowns," Sondheim's best-known song.

Douglas Sills and Randy Graff as a preening dragoon and his embittered wife walk off with the majority of the laughs in what are the most obvious and showy roles.

John Dossett displays a nice indecision as Desiree's one-time lover, but it's left to the younger members of the cast, especially Danny Gurwin and Sarah Uriarte Berry, to best capture the pleasure and pain of falling in love — and hang the consequences.

Yet Sondheim's scintillating waltz-like melodies, deliberately hesitant yet undeniably entrancing, dominate the proceedings. They provide those rueful smiles for a summer night that evaporates all too quickly.

Except for a touring Japanese production of "Pacific Overtures," which arrives early in September for a short visit, the Sondheim Festival at the Kennedy Center ends Aug. 25. From "Sweeney Todd" to "Company" to "Sunday in the Park with George" to "Merrily We Roll Along" to "Passion" and "A Little Night Music," they have made a convincing case for placing the master's works side by side all summer long. It's been quite a ride.

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