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A Tall Ardor for 'Passion' Players
Sondheim Cast Faces Agonizing Roles

The Washington Post, Sunday, July 14, 2002; Page G01
By Paul Farhi

Judy Kuhn is the smaller one, olive-complected, with close-cropped hair and dark eyes. She rehearses in a hooded gray sweat shirt, which hangs on her tiny frame like a haphazardly measured drape. This is promising.

Rebecca Luker is tall and blond, with a sunny, full, open face. She is, as Oscar Hammerstein II put it in "South Pacific," "broad where a broad should be broad." This is also promising, maybe ideal.

An oddly matched set, Kuhn and Luker are the shrewdly cast female leads in "Passion," the next entry in the Kennedy Center's Stephen Sondheim-a-thon (performances begin Friday and run through Aug. 23). "Passion," after all, is about a pair of opposites with one thing in common: the same lover.

Kuhn plays sickly, doomed Fosca, the obsessive pursuer of a young Italian army officer named Giorgio (Michael Cerveris), circa 1860-something. Luker is the beautiful Clara, an unhappily married Milan aristocrat who maintains a long-distance affair with Giorgio as he tramps off to a military outpost and begins a complicated relationship with the grasping Fosca.

This is no joy ride. "Passion," which premiered on Broadway in 1994, is arguably the grimmest and most complex of the six musicals in the summer-long "Sondheim Celebration." It has tragic death, a couple bouts of madness and enough emotional pain to fill a palazzo. There isn't an applause moment in its two-hour run.

It's not surprising that "Passion" is the slowest-selling show of the series.

On paper, however, it also has three obvious assets. Director Eric Schaeffer has successfully navigated this dark alleyway before. His production of "Passion" at the Signature Theatre in Arlington in 1996 was better received than the play's Broadway run two years earlier. Signature's "Passion" won five Helen Hayes Awards (including best musical and best director) and helped burnish Schaeffer's status as a Sondheim master.

It also boasts Luker and Kuhn, two accomplished Broadway and cabaret artists with five Tony nominations between them.

But the challenges here are several. Among them: How to translate the intimacy and intensity of Schaeffer's Signature production (staged in a 136-seat space) to the comparatively cavernous Eisenhower Theater; some critics thought the original production lost heat and intensity in a Broadway-size space.

Schaeffer thinks that issue can be solved by maintaining the emotional balance among the three principal characters. He thinks the problem with the Broadway production, perversely, was Donna Murphy's Tony-winning turn as Fosca.

"She had people coming away saying, 'Donna Murphy, Donna Murphy, Donna Murphy,' " he says. "This has to be a triangle with equal sides" -- he forms an equilateral triangle with his fingers -- "with Giorgio at the top. It's his journey, really. . . . It's all about these two women and their rapport" with Cerveris.

Nor does Schaeffer think he's merely restaging the show he did six years ago at Signature. For one thing, James Lapine has made minor tweaks to his book, and Schaeffer has included a song, "Fosca," that Sondheim wrote for the London production. In addition, he's now got two Broadway pros to play the emotionally, socially and physically dissimilar Fosca (Italian for "gloomy") and Clara (roughly, "clear").

Kuhn recognizes that the central difficulty of playing Fosca -- who shamelessly throws herself at Giorgio -- is to find, against the odds, something sympathetic or even heroic in her. The character is intense, even maniacal in her pursuit, offering Giorgio, in Sondheim's lyrics, "a love as pure as breath, as permanent as death, as implacable as stone" (in rehearsals, Cerveris looks suitably mortified by all this).

It's a showy part in its very ugliness -- she's sallow and gaunt and haunted through much of the piece. "The Greeks thought that kind of woman suffered from hysteria," says the dusky Kuhn, whose varied résumé includes playing Cosette in the American premiere of "Les Miserables" and singing the title character in Disney's "Pocahontas."

"She's suffered rejection," Kuhn says. "She's in pain. I want to make people understand why she does what she does, if not love what she does. It's like a drug addict. You hate the behavior, but if you understand the helplessness behind it, you realize there's not much choice."

In contrast to the haggard Fosca, Luker plays the curled and frocked Clara, who's got her own little complication: a child, whom she fears she'll lose to her powerful husband if she runs off with Giorgio. What's a girl to do?

Luker's played a series of mainstream leading ladies (Maria in "Sound of Music," Magnolia in "Show Boat," Christine in "Phantom of the Opera"), and she finds this role a particular test of her chops. Part of it is the hurry-up schedule ("Passion" is being staged with half the eight weeks of rehearsal common for a Broadway show). Part of it is the show's brief run (just 15 performances), which means there's no time for mid-run fixes. And part of it is Sondheim's score, which is typically dense and melodically jagged.

"The music is so difficult," Luker says. "I mean, it's gorgeous, and we're all good musicians. But it's just a complicated, demanding score."

Luker and Kuhn will be able to take it up with the boss himself. Sondheim -- everyone involved in "Passion" calls him Steve -- will visit rehearsals this week. Everyone seems to expect at least a few last-minute words of wisdom.

"I could see doing this for a long time," laughs Kuhn, "if it didn't kill me and put me in a miserable depression. It's emotionally exhausting. It's a very dark place to live."

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