Amazing Journey

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     August 14, 2003: Playing for 'Passion' and walking the 'Doll'

Chicago Sun Times
By Hedy Weiss Theater Critic

The Ravinia Festival's five-year celebration of the work of Stephen Sondheim has so far brought top-flight staged concert versions of "Sweeney Todd" and "A Little Night Music" to the pavilion stage.

This year, the musical of choice is "Passion," Sondheim's 1994 collaboration with librettist James Lapine that traces the surprising relationship that develops between Giorgio, a handsome young Army officer, and Fosca, a strange, depressive, seriously ill woman he meets while posted far from home. Fosca's ferocious obsession with Giorgio transforms his understanding of love and even leads to his leaving his more traditionally lovely fiance, Clara. Sondheim's score for the show is one of his most fervent, and will be sung by Patti Lupone (starring as Fosca), joined by New York veterans Michael Cerveris and Audra McDonald.

Ten days after "Passion," Ravinia's Steans Institute Music Theater program will present workshop performances of a new musical, "Doll," by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. The work was inspired by another unusual relationship--the real-life liaison between the Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, who also was romantically linked with such other great artists of the early 20th century as composer Gustav Mahler, Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and poet Franz Werfel. After Alma Mahler left Kokoschka, he designed a life-size doll of her that he paraded around to cafes and the opera. A brilliant act of performance art or a dance on the brink of madness? You judge.

Here's a closer look at both upcoming productions:

Big emotions, big talent make for bold 'Passion'
When: Aug. 22 and 23, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $45-$80
Call: (847) 266-5100

'If you look at Sondheim's musicals, whether 'A Little Night Music' or 'Company' or 'Follies,' the sense of love and desire in them is often clandestine, hidden, sardonic in tone," said Lonny Price, who is directing Ravinia's staged concert production of "Passion" on the heels of his successful Broadway revival of "Master Harold ... and the Boys."

"But in 'Passion' it's all on the surface. The characters express their love unabashedly--that's really the operative word in this show," Price said. "These people just start out saying, 'Love is good and I want it,' and there is a complete forthrightness in how they declare their feelings and go after what they want."

As a result, the director is approaching the show with a similar boldness.

"The intensity of the characters' emotions is huge, so I think I'm justified," he said. "Plus, this is really a chamber piece and it has to be made big enough to hold the stage at Ravinia. Patti Lupone and Audra McDonald--two of the most amazing singing actresses we have in the theater today--can certainly carry that off. Patti is right at home playing Fosca's big emotions, and this show happens to sound great in her throat. And Audra--who is incapable of a false moment onstage--has a grounded, truthful loveliness that is perfect for Clara. As for Michael Cerveris [who starred in the Broadway revival of 'Tommy,' and who received raves last year when he played Giorgio in a revival of 'Passion' at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.], he is an ideal fit, and Sondheim really admired his performance.

"I also received one very helpful bit of advice when I chatted with [librettist] James Lapine about the show," said Price "He said, 'Remember that Giorgio is a soldier with a heightened sense of honor, a man who has been trained to save people's lives.' This really helps explain his sense of responsibility toward Fosca, and why he keeps going back to her."

Sondheim's score for "Passion" contains some of his most intimate love songs--many of them written in the form of love letters.

"It's a very romantic, lush, legato score," observed Paul Gemignani, the masterful Broadway conductor who has served as musical director for most of Sondheim's shows, and who will conduct "Passion" at Ravinia. "But of course Steve always writes to the project, and this is a story that required that kind of romantic, languid music."

Gemignani is a big fan of concert stagings of musicals, especially when it comes to Sondheim shows.

"This form allows the audience to pay more attention to the music, as well as to the poetry and complexity of his lyrics," he said. "Too much work in the theater these days gets overshadowed by all the visual nonsense. Of course, audiences also are better at hearing Sondheim now; in the past it would take at least two or three exposures before what he was doing was fully understood."

Gemignani, who was involved in the first readings of Sondheim's latest musical, "Bounce," but never made it to the show's just-completed run at the Goodman Theatre, will conduct the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of "Sweeney Todd" at Covent Garden this fall.

Twisted 'Doll' takes a look at artist's obsession
When: Sept. 3 and 4, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20
Call: (847) 266-5100

Eight years ago, lyricist Michael Korie saw an exhibition of Oskar Kokoschka's work at the Guggenheim Museum and became fascinated by a picture of the artist that showed him with a bizarre, life-size doll of Alma Mahler. The doll, he learned, had been designed by Kokoschka after their breakup, and for a while he took it to public events.

"Not only did his use of the doll--which Alma, ever the diva, reportedly found very amusing--raise questions about what is art and what is illusion," said Korie. "But the whole story behind it suggested all those issues about men and women and romance and control that never seem to go away. The backdrop of Vienna in the early 20th century--when war was brewing in Europe and great changes were in the air--also seemed rich. So did the musical possibilities, with echoes of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler that could be blended with a more contemporary sound."

Composer Scott Frankel says that much of what he knew about Alma Mahler came from the classic 1960s Tom Lehrer song--the one that included the verse: "Alma, tell us/All modern women are jealous/Which of your magical wands/Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?"

(It should be noted that Alma was a composer in her own right and undoubtedly was thwarted by the times in which she lived.)

At Ravinia, Lonny Price will direct a cast led by Judy Blazer as Alma, Michael Cerveris as Kokoschka, and David Hyde Pierce (of NBC's "Frasier") as Anton Gruber, mentor to the painter. Broadway veteran Mary Testa will portray the dollmaker.

The show's theatrical coup may come at the end of the first act.

"That's when you hear the actual letter Kokoschka wrote to the dollmaker with almost maniacally precise instructions for the construction of the doll," said Korie. "He said he wanted it to be life-like and to move, but not to be able to stand on its own."

Although the Ravinia version of the doll may only hint at the final design, it is bound to make its mark. It will be the work of master puppeteer Basil Twist.


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