Art is unjust. Its first rule is that there are no rules, and its second is that, if you don’t have some to follow while you’re creating it, a royal mess will probably result. This week, two new editions of old musicals are cases in point. One sets a rule and follows it strictly; the other throws the rule book out the window. Result: Neither exactly provides the happiness you might hope to derive from a musical show.
Happiness is a subject rather than a goal of the 1994 Stephen Sondheim–JamesLapine musical Passion (Classic Stage Company), revived Off-Broadway under John Doyle’s direction. A taut, somber, small-scale work, Passion hews sternly to a unity of action and tone. No word or note is extraneous, no sidelight or backstory is admitted except when absolutely necessary. It packs power, no doubt, but its grim mood also feels claustrophobic, arid, and maybe even a little crazy.
Based on a little-known Italian movie (Ettore Scola’s 1981 Passione d’amore), taken from a short story by an even lesser-known 19th-century writer, I.U. Tarchetti, Passion pits a mutual affection hampered by minor frustrations against a one-sided romantic obsession that ultimately ensnares its object. Giorgio (Ryan Silverman), a young army officer, snuggles contentedly in Milan with voluptuous Clara (Melissa Errico) behind her neglectful husband’s back. Transferred to a remote outpost run by a solemn but kindly commander (Stephen Bogardus), Giorgio encounters the commander’s sickly, unappealing cousin, Fosca (Judy Kuhn), who, long ago cruelly betrayed in love, has retreated into invalid-like isolation and eccentricity. Fosca fixates on gentle, sensitive Giorgio, who shrinks from her excessive emotional displays. Then the regiment’s well-meaning doctor (Tom Nelis) urges him to respond, cautiously, as therapy for the ailing lady. As you’d expect, the therapy gets out of control, till Fosca’s fixation ends by wrecking the lives of everybody involved.
Sondheim’s score, woven with meticulous tightness both verbally and musically, offers many lovely passages. Yet it lacks the element its subject most seems to demand—the mad melodic exhilaration of mid-19th-century opera. The story’s dark downward spiral lures you in, but the sweet sonic web with which Sondheim maps its path yields few emotional thrills. Rather than dramatizing, as Bellini or Verdi might have, it only encapsulates. The motivations behind the characters’ shifting relations remain rather remote—quirks to be puzzled over, not experienced.
Doyle’s production, sweeping forcefully across CSC’s high-ceilinged thrust stage, does its best to make the experience hit home. Keeping scenery minimal, he dresses the bare space with Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes: a swirl of officers’ capes or the billow of a wide-skirted gown. His three leads sing and act with effective fervor. Errico’s lush soprano is a seduction in itself; Silverman makes Giorgio’s emotional twists convincing, if not wholly comprehensible. Where Donna Murphy, the original Fosca, mustered an almost menacing forcefulness, Kuhn, gaunt and burning-eyed, opts for a helpless, desperate vulnerability, scary in its neediness. Heightening it, the dark-brown throb of her lower register works on you like a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If Passion still seems oddly sealed off and rigid, there’s nonetheless life inside its rule-book constraints.
The life in the new stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 TV musical Cinderella is all sprawl, in every imaginable direction. The beloved creators of Oklahoma! and Carousel, sentimentalists with a shrewd eye on the box office, shaped a sweetly romantic version of the ancient fairy tale, poking just enough gentle fun at it to keep the sweetness unsticky. Juiced up for Broadway 56 years later, with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane and a score padded with reworked leftovers from the team’s other shows, Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Broadway Theatre) is as self-consciously contemporary as the plus sign in its new title.
Although the self-consciousness spreads like kudzu through Beane’s wiseass replotting and Mark Brokaw’s gimmick-heavy production, it surprisingly fails to strangle R&H’s original impulse, which supplies most of the evening’s limited but distinct pleasures. The show’s weirdly mixed overall effect is like a hot fudge sundae
inexplicably flavored with chunks of roast beef—you may swallow it all, but you’ll probably feel queasy about it later.
Summarizing Beane’s ornately absurd new story line would cause confusion and waste space. The point is that it’s antithetical, in both style and spirit, to the R&H ethos. Whenever a song from the original comes along and is allowed to fulfill the effect its authors intended (which isn’t often), it feels like a rebuke to the campy-cartoon proceedings. When Victoria Clark, as the fairy godmother, is singing, or when Santino Fontana’s Prince whirls Laura Osnes’s Cinderella around the ballroom floor, you get relatively pure Rodgers and Hammerstein. When Harriet Harris, as Ella’s stepmother, starts scheming with the crooked courtier (Peter Bartlett) who runs the Prince’s life, what you get, though amusing, feels more like Rocky and Bullwinkle. Granted, we live in a messed-up world; that a show aimed at kiddie audiences should depict a messed-up world may be justifiable. I just wish I could feel that it didn’t add to the mess.
Belleville (NYTW), set in the Paris suburb of that name, strives unwisely to live by two sets of rules at once. It wants to be both a thriller and a meaningful new work by Amy Herzog, who’s just given New York three excellent plays (After the Revolution, 4000 Miles and The Great God Pan), but compared with them it looks pretty pallid. In Herzog’s other plays, the solidity of the overall context gets you past the occasional factitious or arguable passage. With Belleville, the situation is reversed: A few convincing passages leap out of the basically factitious context.
A newlywed American couple (Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller), who apparently don’t know much about each other, have moved to Paris, where he’s doing medical research. Heavy hints get dropped about her family troubles, his money and job troubles, and their joint troubles with sex and drugs and their landlords, the Senegalese couple downstairs (Pascale Armand and Phillip James Brannon). Clearly, somebody’s lying, and somebody might get violent. As the stresses pile up, it all starts to resemble a two-sided hipster re-edit of Gaslight. But keeping secrets from your spouse was easier back when Ingrid Bergman wore Victorian gowns than it is in the age of TMI. They’ve supposedly been in Belleville four months; it’s hard to believe that nobody smelled a rat earlier.
Under the skullduggery, Herzog is struggling to convey something about contemporary life and how it can make love or compassion go awry. She’ll surely find better ways to express it in future works. Anne Kauffman’s tender, soft-paced direction, striving to avoid melodramatics, tones everything down to the point where the performances almost disappear; you could hardly call what transpires onstage acting.