The 1994 musical Passion–with a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine–was an adaptation of the 1981 Italian film Passione d’Amore, about a sickly, unattractive woman who fixates on a handsome soldier in 19th Century Italy and wills him to love her back.
I loved the movie because they pulled all the stops out with the characterization of the woman, Fosca, who was practically grotesque and Glenn Close-like in her ardor, making for some very bold dramatics. The more outrageously this story is told, I’ve found, the more resonance it has, because Fosca’s poetic heart and manipulative skills are extra effective when they’re shown surmounting a lot of personal obstacles.
By time the Broadway version debuted, Tony winner Donna Murphy was playing a slightly more toned down Fosca–less of a gargoyle, if deeply moving–though lowbrow audiences still found the plot repellent and absurd, not believing the love match could have ever happened, even in a musical.
In the new John Doyle-directed version at the CSC, Fosca is played by Judy Kuhn, who takes it a notch even further down. Sans makeup (except for some pasty touches), she looks OK and is hardly wasting away. And she doesn’t play up the character as a tenaciously clutching oddity who comes off like a gorgon on first impression. Kuhn sings beautifully and approaches the piece with subtlety, but just like with this season’s other plain Jane who becomes awakened by love–Jessica Chastain in The Heiress–I could have used a lot more fire and brimstone.
Ryan Silverman is good as the conflicted soldier and Melissa Errico is terrific as his married love interest (before Fosca wheedles him away), and the staging is fluid, albeit on the expectedly scaled-down set (a marble floor, some chairs, a mirror, etc).
The result is a polished Passion, but one that didn’t erase the fact that, while this intermissionless chamber musical has some haunting beauty and strong set pieces, it doesn’t boast one of Sondheim’s greatest scores and the result borders on the dullish at times.
And you can call me grotesque and ugly for saying so.