Boston's SpeakEasy Stage Company wraps up its 2001-2002 season with a near perfect production of what, nonetheless, remains the least satisfying of Stephen Sondheim's musicals. Passion, Sondheim's third collaboration with librettist/director James Lapine, won 1994 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book as well as Best Actress for the incomparable Donna Murphy.
Although Sondheim was initially attracted to the story when he first saw the 1981 Ettore Scola film Passione D'Amore, he and Lapine also drew heavily from the film's source, a partially autobiographical 1869 Italian novel that offers an inverted "beauty and the beast" tale. The central figure, Fosca, a woman sickly in body and spirit, relentlessly pursues the unavailable, handsome young officer Giorgio newly infatuated with the equally unavailable Clara. Spice is added to the traditional triangle by a reversal of male, female roles. Fosca's strength as the aggressor (ably demonstrated by Leigh Barrett) is all the more surprising considering the social mores and protocols of the period.
For the first time, I sensed that the audience was willing to go there. David Foley's defining moment as Giorgio is made plausible because he allows us to see beneath his cool military demeanor and cerebral kindness to Fosca. Julie Jirousek makes Clara's decision, once she's placed in an untenable position, heartfelt. And Sean Roper's outburst when Colonel Ricci, Fosca's protector, thinks she's once again being taken advantage of leads inevitably to the tragic ending of the story. Only Doctor Tambourri, so pivotal in bringing Giorgio and Fosca together, remains an enigma, through no fault of actor J.T.Turner.
Daigneault's staging makes excellent use of the intimate BCA space and is a reminder of why the intensity of the 1996 PBS video of the Broadway production is preferable to Lapine's original staging. The video was shot and edited on film and makes excellent use of close-ups.
In less than twelve months SpeakEasy has made the leap from Sondheim's earliest work to his most recent to date. The fun of seeing Saturday Night more than four decades after it was originally written was discovering how well "peppered" that score is with "actual Sondheim," something oddly missing from Passion.
Most sorely missed is Sondheim's trademark irony. While he's managed to find humor in everything from the social rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents to disposing of bodies in meat pies, Sondheim and Lapine deliberately chose to make this piece devoid of comic relief. They also made a concerted effort during the protracted Broadway preview period to remove, by their own count, twenty unintended laughs. The improvements were legion, but even with Daigneault and his actors giving full justice to the authors' intentions, the audience Sunday night still gave way to the occasional titter and guffaw.
Sondheim also practices what he preaches: never do anything twice. Not only did he set constraints of simplicity on his usual tour de force rhyming schemes, but, according to a 1994 interview in The Sondheim Review, he challenged himself to make the score "one long love song, one long rhapsody" with a single consistent tone providing little contrast. Although the piece is not through-sung, no listing of musical numbers is provided and the intermissionless 1 hr, 50 minutes is intentionally never interrupted by applause. The release at the end, however, is palpable.
Although I miss the musical richness and complexity of the Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods scores, Sondheim's other two Lapine collaborations from the 1980s, which continue to afford new discoveries each time one revisits, perhaps I have yet to plumb the depths of Passion. After all, it does contain one of my favorite lyrics of all time:
How's that for a little irony?
Passion is presented by The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Paul Daigneault Artistic Director, through May 18th at the Boston Center for the Arts: BCA Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston. Performance schedule: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 5PM and 8:30PM; Sundays at 7PM. Box office phone: 617 426-ARTS (2787).