If you surveyed theatergoers as to their favorite Stephen Sondheim musical, I’d venture a guess that the titles most likely bandied about would be Sweeney Todd, Company, Into the Woods, or the Pulitzer-winning Sunday in the Park with George. One of the shows least likely to be mentioned is Passion, the dark, rhapsodic musical Sondheim penned with his Woods and Sunday collaborator James Lapine that won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1994 but is, at 280 performances, the shortest-running musical to claim this prize to date.
Though Sondheim and Lapine’s challenging musical failed to cultivate a broad audience during its Broadway production, which was preserved on film during its original run and is commercially available on DVD, the show also ran in the West End in 1997 and at the Kennedy Center in 2002, and was more recently featured on PBS’s Live at Lincoln Center in a concert version starring Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, and Audra McDonald as its central trio of lovers.
Each of its incarnations has made a strong case for Passion, but Classic Stage Company’s current off-Broadway revival makes an aggressive pitch for Lapine and Sondheim’s show as a musical theatre Meisterwerk, maximizing the show’s emotional impact while keeping its physical proportions minimal. As directed by John Doyle, Sondheim’s latest director of choice, this current production is fleetly and sure-footed as it races through the show’s intricate plot in 110 intermissionless minutes without breaks for applause (ensuring that the emotional tension of the piece is never undercut).
Passion tells the story of the handsome Italian military captain Giorgio Bachetti, who, though serving at a military outpost in the provinces, is nevertheless “hopelessly in love” with Clara, a married woman he leaves behind in Milan and whose passionate letters carry him through the days of military maneuvers. His life is irrevocably changed by the entrance into his life of his commanding officer’s cousin Fosca, a frail and sickly woman whose nervous condition has limited her capacity for physical love but also set free her interior life, which is manifested in her voracious reading habit.
Though Giorgio has pity, even some degree of affection, for her, Fosca in turn exhibits an unyielding, unrequited passion for the handsome object of her obsession. Over the course of the musical, her zeal increases — beginning at first with an urgent letter handed to the captain under the dinner table and culminating in the pursuit of her love object onto a train after he’s been granted a sick leave (induced, in the first place, by his rescue of Fosca after she collapses outside in the rain).
The plot ultimately hinges on Giorgio’s development from handsome, lovestruck innocent to world-weary sufferer. As his relationship with Clara fractures, his understanding of Fosca’s feelings for him — be they ones of love or obsession — begins to evolve and change, refracted through the light of his own revelations about the nature of love. As Giorgio, the musical’s center, Ryan Silverman is a commanding presence, handsome and possessing of a full, colorful singing voice. He’s matched by his leading ladies; Melissa Errico is in stunning voice as Clara, her airy soprano trilling with ease over Sondheim’s beautiful passages for the musically warmer-colored of the two female leads.
It’s up to Judy Kuhn to fill the formidable shoes of Fosca, originated on Broadway by Donna Murphy, who won a Tony for her performance, and embodied subsequently by Patti LuPone at Lincoln Center and by Maria Friedman and Elena Roger in the West End. Kuhn, who is 54 and played the role at the Kennedy Center eleven years ago, is a bit long in the tooth for Fosca (who is described in the script as “late twenties”), but she’s birdlike and clearly understands the solitude and erratic longing of the character, enough so that her age is only a momentary distraction. When the show’s original production was in previews on Broadway, Fosca’s over-the-top affections elicited laughs, but in Kuhn’s hands the only laughter from the audience comes at the moments when her performance commands it intentionally; hers is an incredibly dignified take on the role of Fosca, one that avoids the pitfalls possible for an actress of less nuance — and one that’s made more possible by the close range at which an audience is viewing this production. Kuhn also wisely understands that while the character of Fosca sings some of the most memorable musical sections of the show (“I Read,” “Loving You”), Giorgio’s is the central emotional journey with good reason.
It’s rare for musical theatre enthusiasts to have an opportunity to witness Broadway-caliber singers at work in such an intimate setting, especially since so many musicals these days have such high production values that they require massive audiences just to break even. Passion, which is intimate in scale and made even more intimate by Doyle’s black marble sets, his choice to stage the play with minimal props (even the food in the production is mimed, without too much distraction), and his elimination of several very minor female characters, who are replaced by members of the regiment (who use their long coats as substitute dresses), is perfectly at home at the Classic Stage Company’s space on 13th Street, where six rows back is the furthest away from the performers one can possibly sit.
There are a number of reasons Passion has never been a crowd-pleaser. Its rhapsodic score is challenging and full of intricate leitmotifs, devoid for the most part of neat rhymes or showbiz panache. Its subject matter is dour (thrillingly so to its admirers) and unabashedly emotional. There are no dance breaks or easy conclusions to be drawn. Instead, Passion challenges audiences to see its main trio of characters — the capricious Clara, Fosca with her unrequited longing, and Giorgio, torn between two impossible loves — as a reflection of three conflicting sides present in each of us. It’s this triple-sided mirror that Sondheim and Lapine hold up that makes Passion such a truthful, worthy piece of theatre — one that should not be missed during its brief run at Classic Stage Company.