Amazing Journey

April 1, 2005

By David Rooney


(Frederick P. Rose Hall/Rose Theater; 1,000 seats; $125 top)

A Lincoln Center, American Songbook presentation of a musical in one act with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, based on Ettore Scola's film "Passione d'Amore." Directed by Lonny Price. Musical director, Paul Gemignani.

Fosca - Patti LuPone
Clara - Audra McDonald
Giorgio - Michael Cerveris
Col. Ricci - Allen Fitzpatrick
Dr. Tambourri - Richard Easton
Lt. Torasso - Alexander Gemignani

For a composer who habitually had regarded love with wry detachment, "Passion" marked a radical shift for Stephen Sondheim. True to the 1993 musical's title, he penned lyrics about "a love that shuts away the world, that envelops my soul," even calling the emotion "an intoxication, a great blindness." Yet the show remains one of Sondheim's more difficult creatures to love unconditionally, distinguished by the sinuous dissonance of its haunting score but kept somewhat emotionally remote by its abrasive, manipulative heroine.
The stormy musical is given beguiling treatment that heightens its fineness over its frustrations in the Lincoln Center presentation, the final entry in this season's American Songbook series, filmed for PBS broadcast. Under the sure-handed direction of Lonny Price, who first shepherded this version at the 2003 Ravinia Festival, the semi-staged concert is an unexpectedly full-blooded theatrical experience. The score is played with ravishing restraint by the American Theater Orchestra, guided by long-term Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani.

Following "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods" as the third collaboration between Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who directed the original, subsequently filmed Broadway production), "Passion" is not the sort of sunny depiction of consuming love that's standard musical domain. Instead, it's a dark, complex rumination on the many incarnations of love, from transporting rapture to an obsessive, cancerous form of death.

Based on Ettore Scola's 1981 film "Passione d'Amore," which was adapted from Iginio Ugo Tarchetti's 1863 novel "Fosca," the tragic tale of a romantic triangle deals with handsome soldier Giorgio (Michael Cerveris), who's caught up in a passionate affair with married Milanese woman Clara (Audra McDonald). When Giorgio is transferred to a military outpost, his beauty and kindness attract the attentions of the commanding officer's homely, bookish cousin Fosca (Patti LuPone), described by her doctor as "a medical phenomenon, a walking collection of all possible ills."

Frequently told through the three principal characters' letters and punctuated by the gossip and mimicry of a fascistically costumed military chorus, the melancholy, epistolary musical chronicles Fosca's increasing occupation of Giorgio's mind and, eventually, his heart. When the soldier awakens near the end to the realization that Clara's love, no matter how heartfelt, is subject to practical considerations, while Fosca's is absolute, he makes a choice that will stay with him long after the sickly woman dies.

However, this is no Harlequin romance. This is a love that festers as much as blooms, born in chilly desperation; when Giorgio sings, "Your love will live in me," it seems less like a lingering legacy than an inescapable sentence.

LuPone nails some of Sondheim's most moody, crepuscular ballads with unfaltering command, notably "I Wish I Could Forget You" and the bittersweet "Loving You," a welcome outpouring from a character whose insinuation into Giorgio's heart until then has seemed more like the passive-aggressive power ploy of an ugly outcast than a cry of emotional starvation.

But the actress lacks the fragility and pathos that originator Donna Murphy brought to the role, with the affectation of LuPone's perf adding further distance to an already aloof character. This is especially so in her muddied interpretation of the dourly hypnotic "I Read" and in her frail reprise of "Happiness" near the end. "I have many flaws, Captain," says Fosca to Giorgio in epic understatement, but the irrepressible diva in LuPone rides too grandly over them.

The physical contrast between LuPone and McDonald is expertly harnessed in Price's elegant staging, however, with each woman stationed on designer James Noone's upper platform like a specter hovering over her rival.

Costumer Gail Brassard outfits LuPone like a frilly black gargoyle, shedding her ungainly half-cape, loosening her unflatteringly severe hairdo and changing into a muted lavender-gray dress -- almost the only real color onstage is in Alan Adelman's striking, Mark Rothko-esque lighting designs on a rear screen -- as love and lightness color Fosca's wretched world.

McDonald is all warm-skinned allure, both in her sensual, creamy lingerie and dresses and in the supple, effortless fullness of her luscious soprano. As Clara's red robe literally flies from her body in the show's dynamically staged opening, she tangles with Giorgio in bed to convey sexual and romantic ecstasy in "Happiness."

"As long as you are a man, you are what the world will make of you," says Fosca. "Whereas if you are a woman, you are only what it sees." This sober observation carries a sting when Fosca's sheer force of will makes something more of her, while Clara's beauty ultimately proves more tangible.

The true force of this "Passion" is the gifted Cerveris, especially when compared with the original cast's wooden Jere Shea. Cerveris is quietly masculine and charismatic, and his rich, bold baritone invests thrilling emotion into the role, in particular the reproachful "Is This What You Call Love?" and "No One Has Ever Loved Me," sung with the clarity of a character whose eyes and heart have been freshly opened. As much as Fosca, this is a show about the painful enlightenment of Giorgio's journey to love, and Cerveris makes that journey vivid and compelling.

With: Timothy Gulan, Devin Richards, James Clow, John Sloman, Gina Ferrall, John Cunningham, George Dvorsky, Kate Baldwin, Trey Compton, Jono Hustis, Jenn Dottino, Abby Stevens, Joshua Johnston.

Set, James Noone; costumes, Gail Brassard; lighting, Alan Adelman; musical staging, Marla Lampert; sound, Tom Clark; production stage manager, Jeffrey M. Markowitz. Opened, reviewed March 30, 2005. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

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