Amazing Journey

Emotions Beneath the Sondheim Chill

New York Times, August 8, 2002
By Ben Brantley

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 — The soldier has the shucked, wondering look of a man who is just realizing that he has shed his old skin. Something has happened to Giorgio, the kind of thing that means he will never again see life in the same terms. When his mistress tells him solemnly, "You've changed," the simple words crack like thunder.

Theatergoers who saw the original Broadway production of "Passion," the Tony-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine from 1994, may not recall this moment. Or if they do, they probably don't remember it as anything special. But in the transfixingly clear revival of the show at the Kennedy Center here, the jewel of its summer-long Sondheim festival, the scene clicks like a key in a long-locked door.

Giorgio, a young lieutenant in 19th-century Italy and the center of the strangest and most intense romantic triangle in Broadway musical history, is played by Michael Cerveris. It's the sort of performance that makes you ask where he's been all our lives, though he has already originated roles in high-profile shows like "Tommy" and "Titanic."

In Eric Schaeffer's splendidly confident restaging of "Passion," Mr. Cerveris gives a performance of such emotional transparency that it hurts. And you start to regard the brooding "Passion" not as an anomaly in the Sondheim canon but as its Rosetta stone.

A declaration from Fosca (the excellent Judy Kuhn), the show's terminally ill heroine, takes on new relevance: "I know I feel too much. I often don't know what to do with my feelings." As the invaluable Sondheim Celebration enters its last month — with "Passion" in repertory with his "Merrily We Roll Along" and "A Little Night Music" — Fosca's words start to seem like an epigraph for the extraordinary strengths and difficulties of Mr. Sondheim's body of work.

Most critics have by now mothballed the objections to Mr. Sondheim as too clever, chilly and cerebral to create musicals with heart. But after seeing all six of the main offerings in the festival (the earlier ones were "Sweeney Todd," "Company" and "Sunday in the Park With George"), I began to think that Mr. Sondheim may be the most emotional composer in the history of musicals.

Not that Mr. Sondheim creates songs with the sentimental wallop of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's impossible, for example, to imagine the melancholy Fosca suddenly bursting out with "I'm in love with a wonderful guy!" Or Sweeney Todd regarding the streets of London and proclaiming, "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'!"

Mr. Sondheim's lyrics don't lend themselves to exclamation points. His has always been an acutely self-conscious sensibility, that of a man in love with the traditions of musicals but aware that those traditions can't always accommodate a modern world in which cherished institutions seem false or at best unreliable.

His much misunderstood "Follies" (1971) is a dialogue between a musical past and characters who feel betrayed by its promises. His "Into the Woods" (1987), currently in revival on Broadway, examines the fallacy of fairy-tale happy endings. But there is more pain than cynicism in such considerations.

"I often don't know what to do with my feelings," indeed. Mr. Sondheim's extraordinary gift lies in his finding ways to express that uncertainty in song while guiding his music into illumination.

For a Sondheim show to work, everyone — onstage and off — has to experience a sense of change and in the process feel "too much."

As the Kennedy Center festival vividly illustrates, this makes casting and performing a Sondheim musical a very tough proposition. It's rare that a production reflects the shadows in the score as satisfyingly as the festival's "Passion" does and "Company" did.

The current incarnations of "Merrily" (1981) directed by Christopher Ashley, and "Night Music" (1973), directed by Mark Brokaw, aren't disastrous. Like Mr. Schaeffer's staging of "Sunday in the Park" they mostly seem just dutiful. They are blueprint productions in which all the elements are in place but never come together into three vibrant dimensions.

"Merrily" has always been the beloved problem child of Mr. Sondheim's works. Adapted by Mr. Sondheim and George Furth from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the show famously moves backward in time, charting its characters' path from middle-aged disillusionment to youthful idealism. The original Broadway production, directed by the mighty Harold Prince, used a cast of largely untried young performers who couldn't begin to do justice to their characters' devolutions.

In contrast, Mr. Ashley's "Merrily" has seasoned and magnetic stars, including Michael Hayden (Nicholas Hytner's "Carousel"), Raul Esparza ("Tick, Tick . . . Boom") and Miriam Shor ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"). Yet they too seem frustratingly one-note as they act out the long, thorny friendship of a composer (Mr. Hayden), a playwright (Mr. Esparza) and a novelist (Ms. Shor).

Mr. Prince has said that "Merrily" was originally conceived as a sort of latter-day "Babes in Arms," a bubbly frolic to display young talent. But Mr. Sondheim's bubbles tend to sting, and Mr. Prince's approach belly-flopped. This is nonetheless essentially the approach adopted by Mr. Ashley, with numbers (choreographed by Karma Camp) that bring to mind awkward answers to the peppier sequences from "Singin' in the Rain."

A trio like "Old Friends" can't just be sunny; you have to sense the clouds ahead and within. Mr. Hayden, Mr. Esparza and Ms. Shor sing the glorious score appealingly, but they cling steadfastly to the surface of things. (You never, for example, believe that Ms. Shor's character is hopelessly in love with Mr. Hayden's.)

It is not a good sign when Gussie (the wonderful Emily Skinner), the voluptuous movie star who corrupts Mr. Hayden's Frank, and her downtrodden husband, Joe (Adam Heller), emerge as the show's most compelling figures.

"A Little Night Music," one of Mr. Sondheim's few bona fide hits on Broadway, suffers from a similar imbalance. Mr. Brokaw, an agile and imaginative director from Off Broadway, may have been intimidated by the arch stateliness of this tale (adapted from an Ingmar Bergman movie) of muddled sexual liaisons in early 20th-century Sweden.

In any case Mr. Brokaw's response has been to scale up the comedy and scale down the rueful awareness of mortality. Given the copious sexual innuendos in Hugh Wheeler's book, this often has the effect of making "Music" feel like a Scandinavian answer to "Love American Style." Randy Graff, playing the disenchanted, deeply bored wife of a fatuous count (Douglas Sills), runs away with the show with her dry, exaggerated line readings. It is petty larceny.

Blair Brown brings her usual warmth and centeredness to the pivotal role of the actress Desiree Armfeldt, and she lends a beguiling sincerity to the well-worn "Send in the Clowns." But this commanding actress fails to project Desiree's dithery, disorganized side. John Dosset gives a sweetly understated performance as her hapless lover.

It's the enchanting young soprano Sarah Uriarte Berry, however, who seems most happily wedded to her role, that of an insistently virginal bride. Her fluttery interpretation may not be subtle, but it has a heartfelt charm. Like Ms. Skinner, Ms. Berry becomes the misplaced focus of her show.

Mercifully, it is hard to conceive of a more impeccably balanced "Passion" than the one offered here. Mr. Schaeffer has staged the show before for the Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., and he clearly has an instinctive grasp on this knotty, fascinating work. As he demonstrated in his worthy Signature production, he understands that the center of "Passion" has to be Giorgio, the sensitive young army lieutenant, instead of Fosca, the sickly, homely and obsessive woman who pursues him to the point of death.

The central problem with the Broadway "Passion" was that Donna Murphy's Fosca was so dazzlingly conceived that you felt it was her story. It's not. "Passion," which features Mr. Lapine's most accomplished book for a musical, must trace Giorgio's change in his perception of what love is as he shifts his affections from Clara (Rebecca Luker in this version), his ravishing mistress, to the unlikely and unprepossessing Fosca.

Whether this shift is a move toward salvation or destruction is, and should be, unclear. With the designers Derek McLane (set) and Howell Binkley (lighting) doing their most refined work for the festival, this production brings out the show's affinities to Romantic Age classics like "Wuthering Heights," dark paeans to unconditional love.

Ms. Luker and Ms. Kuhn turn in thrillingly sung, intelligently realized performances that refrain from making Clara too shallow or Fosca too grotesque. And with Mr. Cerveris tracing Giorgio's vacillation between them with such acutely graded emotions, the lieutenant's final choice seems inevitable.

The use of Giorgio's fellow soldiers as a Greek chorus and the sustained counterpoint of Clara's and Fosca's musical motifs make sense in ways they didn't on Broadway. "Passion" now seems to be taking place inside Giorgio's head, and Mr. Cerveris makes sure that we are caught in there with him.

It is fitting that the standouts of the Sondheim festival should have turned out to be "Company" (1970) and "Passion," works created nearly a quarter of a century apart and the oldest and newest of the musicals performed here. Like Mr. Cerveris, John Barrowman, as the perpetual bachelor Bobby in "Company," provided an interpretation that brought new light and equilibrium to a show that never seemed entirely in kilter before.

And while Bobby is last seen pleading to be taught how to love, Giorgio is allowed to learn that lesson fully in "Passion." This answered prayer does not come without a penalty. But then nothing does in Mr. Sondheim's world of conflicted, overwhelming feelings.

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