Amazing Journey

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     August 24, 2003: A 'Passion' worthy of Broadway revival

Chicago Sun Times
By Hedy Weiss Theater Critic

If there were any Broadway producers in the audience at Highland Park's Ravinia Festival on Friday night (and who knows, perhaps there were), they should now seriously be thinking about the possibility of a revival of "Passion," the 1994 Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.

They wouldn't need to do any preparation at all. In fact, if they were smart, they'd simply lift the show--in exactly the same staged concert format devised for the two Ravinia performances--and drop it down on a New York stage.

Of course, they'd need to persuade the brilliant cast--including Patti Lupone, Michael Cerveris and Audra McDonald in the principal roles, and Chicago actors David Darlow, David Girolmo and Kymberly Mellen in supporting roles--to remain with the show.

They'd need director Lonny Price, who has uncannily unlocked the magic of "Passion," to oversee it once again. And they'd need to keep a large symphony orchestra right onstage behind the actors, ideally under the baton of that peerless Sondheim musical director, Paul Gemignani.

The Tony Award aside, "Passion," like a number of other Sondheim musicals over the years, didn't entirely click its first time out, even if the glories of its score--operatic in its emotionalism and aptly relentless in its dramatic momentum--could not be missed.

But now, in this concert version--fully and ravishingly acted and sung, lush in its musical accompaniment and endowed with just enough visual cues (including fiery lighting by Robert Christen that seemed to emanate heat, and some brilliant costuming by Gail Brassard)--it has found its ideal mode of performance.

True, "Passion," based on a 1991 Italian film inspired by a 19th century novel, tells one of the more extreme and obsessive of love stories as it traces the shifting emotions in a decidedly unusual romantic triangle.

The musical begins as a handsome, intelligent soldier, Giorgio (Cerveris, in a performance of great sensuality that wholly breaks with the usual cliched, wooden interpretation), makes passionate love with his married mistress, Clara (McDonald, who of course sings ravishingly, but also adds so many dimensions to her character that the voice almost becomes secondary).

Giorgio is soon sent away to a provincial outpost where he meets the near-hysterical, chronically ill, far from beautiful and overwhelmingly possessive Fosca (Lupone, in a role she was born to play and to which she brings absolute mastery). A woman who is literally love-starved, her fevered, uncensored pursuit of him triggers pity, revulsion and fear at first, but ultimately ensnares and transforms him.

This is a musical every bit as all-consuming and laced with redemption as Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," and its 100 uninterrupted minutes reveal Sondheim and Lapine at their most feverish, though still capable of welcome bits of black humor. And Price's vision--including a particularly marvelous touch near the end, as Giorgio and Fosca seem almost to exchange identities and body temperatures--keeps all the contradictions and wonder of the story in a perfect state of suspension.

One small note: On Broadway, "Passion" was notorious for its opening bedroom scene, briefly played in the nude. There was no nudity at Ravinia--just great acting--and the erotic charge was immeasurably greater.

Sondheim, who was exceptionally high-spirited and talkative during a packed pre-show "conversation" with the public in the Martin Theatre, took a bow after the Pavilion performance, and had big hugs for the stars and conductor Gemignani. He had every reason to be elated.

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