Unlike many flames, fires of the heart are not so easily brought under control; neither, for that matter, are glaciers. The concert production of Passion at the Rose Theater sacrifices previously infernal blazes for the chilling intensity of a harsh winter storm; yet, if you believe that flash freezing is no less vital a function of the heart than searing, then this is the Passion for you.
If you're not completely convinced that either is ideal material for a musical - especially one with a Stephen Sondheim score and a James Lapine book - this production, being presented as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, won't make you a convert. This show has drawn sharp dividing lines down the theatrical community ever since its 1994 premiere, and hardly appeals even to all Sondheim devotees.
But for those in need of no convincing of the work's merits, this is an intriguing and effective interpretation that rescues the work from the overstuffed, turgid stagings with which it's too often been associated. In directing this Passion, Lonny Price has brought out in the work not only its taut and tense qualities, but also its intimacy and romanticism. Staging the show on a series of platforms and staircases (the set design is by James Noone), Price has implemented enough close-ups, cross-fades, and quick-cuts to give the work a sharp cinematic edge.
One could argue that these techniques were a necessity given the production's broadcast last night on PBS's Great Performances, and one wouldn't necessarily be wrong. But they also make this the fastest-moving, most kinetically engaging Passion I've seen yet. If at first it seems that this treatment won't benefit the work - which often operates as much in the lush, languorous phrases of Sondheim's score as in its passages of raw emotionalism - it's not long before the staging's rapidly sweeping scope releases an urgency that can all too easily go missing.
It's precisely that urgency that must fuel the story. Passion isn't just the show's title, it's its overriding philosophy, as manifested in the central love triangle, in which the soldier Giorgio (Michael Cerveris) is trapped between romantic love for his married lover Clara (Audra McDonald) and the needy desperation of the ugly, infirm Fosca (Patti LuPone). The real conflict of the show is less about whom Giorgio will end up with, than whether he'll decide to pursue love safely or choose a more dangerous - yet potentially more rewarding - course.
Price brilliantly renders this conflict in theatrical terms, moving the various pieces of this quixotic chess game in and out of focus in a swirling yet matter-of-fact fashion. (Lighting designer Alan Adelman and musical stager Marla Lampert are key in helping set the mood.) Even the supporting characters seem of unusual prominence, from the meddling doctor (Richard Easton) who sets Giorgio down the path to ruin to Fosca's cousin Colonel Ricci (Allen Fitzpatrick, giving a truly dynamic performance) who's more invested in the outcome than he initially lets on.
Still, it's the trio of lovers that truly defines the show. Cerveris is up to the challenge, as a veteran of Giorgio who's played the role a number of times already (including at the Kennedy Center in 2002). He continues to grow in the role, which he interprets with an increasingly wary youthful alacrity, and manages to find new dramatic colors as his character moves from love to agitation to outrage and then to passion and despair. McDonald brings to her performance a smokier sensuality than is often the case; Clara is frequently played with a brighter fire that diminishes as the story takes its toll on her. But seldom have Clara's internal contradictions and eventual change of heart made so much sense, and never has Clara's music sounded as rich as it does in McDonald's enveloping rendition.
Similar expectation-shattering magic, however, is not achieved with LuPone. She makes valiant attempts at the role, and she sings it well (her traditionally casual relationship with diction is nowhere in evidence here). But she's too naturally robust and gutsy to perfectly fit Fosca: She's never believably on the verge of death, let alone a breakdown, and her enactments of Fosca's emotional and physical convulsions come closer to evoking unintentional laughter than pity. But it is LuPone's performance that generates the production's tempering, cooling breeze; you don't get the highs and lows you did with the manic Donna Murphy on Broadway or the calculating Judy Kuhn in Washington, D.C., but you do get something more manageable and down to earth.
Purists might point out that Passion shouldn't be thus controlled, and perhaps they're right. But Price, Cerveris, McDonald, musical director par excellence Paul Gemignani, and, yes, even LuPone, have done such strong work, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. They've all contributed to a perfectly valid (if flawed) production of a show that likely forever will be in search of its ideal form. If Passion will never appeal to everyone, this mounting makes one of the best cases yet.
American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center