The Washington Times, May 15, 1994

    Theatre Review:
    Despite its achy-breaky heart, Stephen Sondheim's tortured musical
    romance fails to turn into lovable story

    By Bruce Kluger

    Over the span of his four-decade career,
    Stephen Sondheim has covered some far-
    reaching landscapesfrom 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:
    Company (1970) was a tart doctoral on the pain and pleasure of holy matrimony; A
    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
    beautifuland marriedClara. The premisecan 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 characterlet alone
    enough to justify why Giorgio would select her over the beautiful, passionate and
    eager Clara.

    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
    liveloving you is what I do," she sings to Giorgio), they have made it impossible
    for Giorgioor us, for that matterto 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 anchorand she does.

    The play opens with the achingly lovely Clara in bed with Giorgioastride him.
    They are stroking and touching and singing to one another. They are also naked (a
    tasteful and enticingif not shockingbit 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 beguilingher entrances marked with lilting
    waltzes, her costumes (when Giorgio is not removing them from her) becoming
    increasingly dazzling.

    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 panelslarge,
    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 hereat 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
    as stone."

    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
    clarityemotionally, 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 battleone worth wagingthe power of this story is ultimately
    sapped by its relentlessnessand, subsequently, the disease to which the show
    succumbs is terminal.

                      Two stars (out of four)
    WHAT: Passion
    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