The Washington Times, May 15, 1994
Despite its achy-breaky heart, Stephen Sondheim's tortured musical
romance fails to turn into lovable story
By Bruce Kluger
Stephen Sondheim has covered some far-
reaching landscapes—from 19th-century
Japan (Pacific Overtures) to the bloody back
streets of London (Sweeney Todd) to the
decaying edifices of both ancient Rome (A
Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the
Forum) and Ziegfeld's stage (Follies).
Only a few times, however, has Broadway's
leading composer-lyricist aimed his scope
directly at the rocky shoals of romance:
Little Night Music (1973, based on Ingmar Bergman's bedroom farce, Smiles of a
Summer Night) was an exploration of longing, classism and costumed carnality, set
to three-quarter time; and his Pulitzer-winning Sunday in the Park With George
grazed the contours of romance as it made deeper penetrations into the murky
hollows of art.
Unfortunately, Passion, Mr. Sondheim's latest foray into the labyrinth of love, which
opened this week at the Plymouth Theater on Broadway, does less to irrigate the
landscape of romance than to drown it in misguided excesses.
Collaborating with director-librettist James Lapine (his partner on Sunday in the
Park With George and the fractured fairy tales, Into the Woods), Mr. Sondheim has
based this new work on the 1981 movie Passion D'Amour, which itself was adapted
from Igino Tarchetti's 1869 epistolary novel, Fosca.
The story follows Giorgio, a dashing cavalry captain in 1860s Italy, who is
obsessively pursued by his commanding officer's somewhat homely and ailing
cousin, Fosca, while he himself carries on with the object of his fixation, the
beautiful—and married—Clara. The premise—can our hero find something worth
loving beneath the skin?—is simple enough, and one not very different from that of
Broadway neighbor, Beauty and the Beast.
In Passion's case, though, the angel and ogre embody separate beings, and it is up
to the tormented Giorgio to untangle the tethers that bind the heart and the flesh
and choose between the two women. Regrettably, while Passion proposes to
dissect the true, white fire of love (specifically, as one song notes, "love
unconcerned with being returned"), the proceedings evoke only the passion of
As Clara's "rival," as she calls herself, Fosca is so relentlessly wretched in both her
failing health and lack of dignity as she pursues the reluctant Giorgio, that it is
nearly impossible to find even a scintilla of redemption in her character—let alone
enough to justify why Giorgio would select her over the beautiful, passionate and
Even if Messers Sondheim and Lapine are trying to say that there is something
quite noble and, ultimately, winning about Fosca's relentlessness ("You are why I
live—loving you is what I do," she sings to Giorgio), they have made it impossible
for Giorgio—or us, for that matter—to discover that nobility: From the moment of
Fosca's first entrance, one can sense that this pale, pouting presence will serve not
as counterpoint to this love triangle but simply as an anchor—and she does.
The play opens with the achingly lovely Clara in bed with Giorgio—astride him.
They are stroking and touching and singing to one another. They are also naked (a
tasteful and enticing—if not shocking—bit of staging that has already grabbed
much of the industry buzz about the show). As their affair accelerates throughout
the evening, Clara becomes ever more beguiling—her entrances marked with lilting
waltzes, her costumes (when Giorgio is not removing them from her) becoming
But interruptions by Fosca likewise pick up speed, and Giorgio subsequently sinks
deeper and deeper into a frustrated funk. Alas, frustration is not passion when it is
not infused with desire. And Giorgio simply does not desire Fosca. Indeed,
throughout the bulk of Mr. Lapine's script, Giorgio only seems to hang around
Fosca for the opportunity to yet again tell her to go away.
Adrianne Lobel's scenery reflects the bipolar nature of the script. Made up of
floating scrims, arches, curtains and chandeliers, set against backdrops of serene,
pastel landscapes, the stage is often suddenly blocked by sliding panels—large,
colored squares that fly in to frame the action, creating a disturbing sterility. Like
the narrative, the effect serves less to underscore the duality of love than it does to
suffocate the action.
Passion's score doesn't help matters much, either, though it is a mixed bag. Many
of the musical movements are brilliantly constructed, rooting around in dark,
brooding tonalities before suddenly bursting forth in breathtaking melodies. But
there is also a maddening sameness to the songs that ironically abets the
dreariness of the characters' plights, rather than depicts their evolutions.
This musical redundancy is not an accident: To accentuate the technique, the
show's authors have intentionally left individual song titles out of the show's Playbill.
This was a mistake that only serves to aggravate the score's monotony.
The only musical departure throughout the show is a recurring narrative by a type
of Greek chorus, a device used by Mr. Sondheim throughout his career, notably
with the Liebeslieder singers in A Little Night Music. This time the chorus is staffed
by harmonizing military men, backed by the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare drum. The effect
does less to propel the action than put a brake on it.
As usual, though, Mr. Sondheim's lyrics are in top form here—at once insightful but
caustic, sentimental but smart. Only Stephen Sondheim would eschew the usual,
mundane depictions of falling in love in favor of: "For now I'm seeing love/ Like
none I've ever known/ A love as pure as breath/ As permanent as death/ Implacable
Despite the material they've been given, the cast of Passion is diligent and able.
Donna Murphy does the best she can with the ever-grating Fosca, lending the
character a vocal depth that features glissandos that effortlessly sweep from alto to
soprano and back again. Jere Shea handles Giorgio stalwartly, even though for
most of the evening he is forced to bounce like a tennis ball from Clara's
hormonally charged boudoir to Fosca's dungeonlike chamber.
But it is Marin Mazzie who outshines the material most, giving Clara a defiant
clarity—emotionally, vocally, even erotically in her blatantly candid nude scenes.
A lyric midway through Passion is unintentionally prescient: "Beauty is power," it
says, "longing is a disease." Despite the authors' attempts to pit beauty and longing
in a compelling battle—one worth waging—the power of this story is ultimately
sapped by its relentlessness—and, subsequently, the disease to which the show
succumbs is terminal.
Two stars (out of four)
WHERE: The Plymouth Theater, 236 W. 45th Street, New York City
WHEN: No closing date
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour and 50 minutes
TICKETS: $40 to $65
PHONE: 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200