Amazing Journey

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     August 24, 2003: 'Passion' almost a masterpiece

The Chicago Tribune
By Michael Philips
Tribune theater critic

Chugging north from Chicago Friday night, the Ravinia-bound Metra special clickety-clacked with the anticipation, chatter and occasional vocal stylings of a variety of music theater aficionados. The riders could be subdivided into fans of Stephen Sondheim; fans of Patti LuPone, who starred in Ravinia's concert edition of "Sweeney Todd" last summer and "A Little Night Music" the year before; fans of Audra McDonald, arguably the most gifted Broadway singer-actress of her generation; and fans of all of the above.

The occasion was "Passion" (1994), a show preceding the most recent Sondheim project, "Bounce," by a full nine years. "Passion" and "Bounce" make for a fascinating contrast. They're as different as the two female leads of "Passion," who serve as clashing symbols of darkness and light: The sickly, obsessive Fosca and exuberant, easygoing Clara, mistress of Giorgio, the military captain whose battles of the heart overtake his life.

"Passion" strikes me as three-quarters of a masterwork — clammy, but scrupulously crafted. The Ravinia edition of this severe chamber musical, which played to sold-out houses Friday and Saturday, struck me as one-quarter better than that.

LuPone, McDonald and, as Giorgio, Michael Cerveris transcended the original Broadway production's principals. Many would argue the point particularly regarding Fosca, played memorably in New York by Donna Murphy. But something has happened to LuPone in the past few years. She's finally shaking that Andrew Lloyd Webber "Evita" and "Sunset Boulevard" impulse to kill, kill, kill. She has become more confident and quietly authoritative in her performances. Her Fosca didn't have the scarifying intensity Murphy brought to the role. LuPone, however, made her a more subtly controlling figure, to the benefit of this defiantly discomfiting musical.

"Passion" upends the traditional "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale. Instead of Unsightly, Ambiguous Monster falling for Pretty Girl, in "Passion" — based on the 1981 Ettore Scola film "Passione d'amore," in turn based on a late-19th Century novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti — we have a scandalous tale of Handsome Military Man seduced by Beastly, Grasping Yet Somehow Irresistible Female.

So why a three-quarters masterwork? A moment, or a series of moments in song, must occur to make us believe Giorgio would give himself over to Fosca willingly, however tangled Giorgio's motives and feelings. This was my third "Passion," and I still can't find those moments. Sondheim and librettist James Lapine do all they can to build them, yet there it is. Or rather, there they aren't.

Yet it's a mark of Sondheim's genius that certain other songs, notably "I Read" (in which Fosca tells Giorgio what books mean to her existence) and the gorgeous "Loving You," solve a huge dramatic puzzle. In "Loving You" Fosca calmly lays out to Giorgio her reason for staying alive. In this song, all is perfect; our understanding of Fosca's obsession becomes complete, even if we never get behind Giorgio's eyes in return.

"Passion" doesn't give its supporting characters much to sing about. The material assigned to Giorgio's fellow soldiers, stranded in a remote outpost, is pretty routine by Sondheim's high standard (grumblings about "military madness" and gossip about the colonel's frightening cousin). For Ravinia, director Lonny Price trimmed bits of the score and libretto.

McDonald's Clara made "Passion" a fully drawn triangle in performance. Just as LuPone's Fosca saved the fireworks for just the right passages, McDonald shrewdly intimated Clara's charming duplicity and self-delusion at key junctures. With his slightly haughty moodiness and emotional reserve, Cerveris was far superior to Broadway's Giorgio, Jere Shea. Shea came off as a lunk, a pair of singing sideburns. With Cerveris, you sensed a more complicated and fundamentally unfinished character, in a good way.

Many reboarded the Ravinia special back to Chicago unconvinced. Several comments overheard on the way back were on the order of, "This is entertainment?" (Verbatim quote from one woman: "This is entertainment?") With "Passion," though — unlike the more recent, in-progress Sondheim musical "Bounce" — you're dealing with a musical that knows what it's about. You may not go for it, or on some fundamental level even buy it. But at Ravinia, no little thanks to a fine 42-piece orchestra conducted by ace musical director and longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani, audiences heard and felt every beat of this score's daunting heart.

The cast took care of the rest.

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