One of the mysteriously wonderful things about being alive is that depending on how you describe any individual's life, it could sound like either heaven on Earth or the fifth ring of Dante's Inferno. Most of us live in an ever-shifting world -- where any negative situation (being alone) can have a positive spin (the bliss of solitude), and an apparent plus (wealth) can have a paranoid downside (never knowing if a person appreciates you or just wants to tap into your bank account).
The same is true of some theatrical productions. Consider two descriptions of Passion, the musical by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the words and music, and James Lapine, who authored the book. It is either a) a virtually uninterrupted 110-minute love song that rarely varies in tempo or tone, crooned by a self-involved threesome, who spend every waking moment trying to define love; or it is b) a lyrical exploration of the tragic yet redeeming possibilities of unabashed and unrequited love, replete with resonant poetic allusions.
In this production at Beck Center, well-staged by director Victoria Bussert, both descriptions are fairly accurate, but the final product isn't nearly as satisfying as some of Sondheim's more familiar work. Winner of four Tony Awards when it first played Broadway in 1994, Passion is a handful to stage. And the Beck company -- never one to shrink from a challenge -- acquits itself with honor, if not with undiluted brilliance.
The story revolves around a slightly skewed love triangle. In 1863 Milan, an army captain named Giorgio is in mid-affair with beauteous but married Clara. This fact is, um, driven home in the first few seconds of the play, as Clara rides her Italian bullet train right through the metaphorical tunnel. But that doesn't stop either of them from singing each other's praises as they foreshadow events to come: "Unhappiness can be seductive/You pitied me/ How quickly pity can turn to love."
Soon Giorgio is reassigned, so he and Clara continue their crush via emotional letters. The hypotenuse to Giorgie-boy and Clara is added by the appearance of Fosca, the wan and unhealthy young niece of Colonel Ricci, commander of Giorgio's new outpost. Fosca falls for Giorgio in a Neapolitan minute, but the young soldier is as cold as yesterday's rigatoni, still pining for his bella Clara. With Fosca clinging to Giorgio's pant leg when she's not fainting, Clara sends letters advising her lover to back away from the sick chick and remain true to their adulterous liaison.
The contents of the letters and most conversations (there are a few patches of straight dialogue) are sung in Sondheim's characteristically layered and intricate compositions -- which is the good news. The bad news is that it's the same lachrymose and melancholy tune the whole way through, with the exception of a few quick musical sorbets chanted by some soldiers. Lacking the usual variety of Sondheim's music, as well as the much-appreciated ironic edge to his words, this composition almost defies the audience to stay plugged in and attentive.
Still, there are moments of exceptional beauty. In one song, Fosca describes a flower that offers nectar at the top. But poison lurks underneath, and "The butterfly that stays too long/And drinks too deep/Is doomed to die." This warning clearly applies to her own fixation on Giorgio, but she persists, and eventually manages to turn the object of her one-sided desire in her direction. While a disturbingly optimistic outcome for budding stalkers is presented here, there is also a tender truth -- regarding a person who loves not because it is a choice, but because it is simply who she is.
The strong cast is highlighted by three performers in the lead roles who handle this heavy vocal lifting with grace. Jodi Dominick is lustful and lively as Clara, singing and acting with precision as she tries to hang onto her long-distance love match. And as Fosca, sweet-voiced Sandra Simon is plain, but not as homely as the story intends, making it less clear why Giorgio is repulsed at the start. In the most demanding role, Jared Leal manages to wrap his flexible pipes around Sondheim's compacted score. But he doesn't quite exude the stature and power that Giorgio should have, if his split affinity for the two women is supposed to set off sparks. At times, he often seems like a plebe playing dress-up, rather than an experienced soldier with mature thoughts and feelings.
The production is enhanced by a small but fine orchestra, conducted by musical director Nancy Maier, and an evocative set (complete with old grape vines and statuary), designed by Russ Borski. Passion may not be the best Sondheim has to offer, but it takes chances -- as does Beck Center in taking on this piece -- and that's why it deserves a look.
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