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Chicago by John Olson

Passion
Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare

Also see John's review of Songs For a New World

Passion
Seated: Ana Gasteyer and Adam Brazier. Above: Kathy Voytko
With his The Color Purple still among Broadway's top-grossers after two years and his long history with some of Chicago's top theater talents, director Gary Griffin is in a position to call on some of the best artists in both communities. He's made full use of this advantage in assembling a cast and creative team to tackle this most challenging piece by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. There's barely room in the black box Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare to contain all this talent, and to be in such close proximity to performers of this caliber feels like attending a private reading of a Broadway show. Griffin has brought in three ascending Broadway stars to play the leads and for supporting roles, he's called on Chicago-area performers who usually play leads. His design team includes the legendary set designer Eugene Lee and his Color Purple costume designer Paul Tazewell. Purple's choreographer Donald Byrd provides his services here as well, along with Broadway music director Rob Berman of Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game.

Ana Gasteyer, still most widely known for her six seasons on Saturday Night Live but building a reputation for musical theater after her replacement Elphaba in Wicked and her Mrs. Peachum in Roundabout's Threepenny Opera, is this production's Fosca. She and Griffin have come up with an approach to the character the plain and sickly woman who wins the affections of a handsome military officer in 19th century Italy that makes the piece's premise more plausible and engaging than is often the case. Gasteyer's Fosca is more nuanced and less melodramatically tragic than others. She's a woman with absolutely nothing neither health nor money, nor love. When she believes she has found a like-minded soul in the officer Giorgio, she has no patience for the rigid social conventions of the time that might impede her pursuit of the man. We see her carefully calculating the words and stratagems that will take advantage of Giorgio's honor and sense of decorum in hopes of gaining at least his attentions, if not his affections. Her ultimate recognition of the selfishness she's displayed becomes less of a leap and more believable than it is when the character's actions earlier in the piece are played in a more extreme manner. Gasteyer's performance is, in comparison to previous Foscas Patti LuPone and Donna Murphy, masterfully understated and her transition from dialogue into "Loving You" is a perfect example of the sort of seamless singing-acting Sondheim musicals require of their performers. Her explanation to Giorgio of the meaning he gives to her life is completely convincing and quite beautifully sung.

To make the piece work, it's equally important and nearly as tricky to find a way to make Giorgio's transformation convincing. Adam Brazier, from Broadway's The Woman in White, gives a performance that surprises in the way it gradually reveals the depths of his character. At first, the young soldier seems merely shallow and immature. As the action progresses, Brazier shows us how the insecurity and loneliness of the character leads him to desire the available and unconditional love of Fosca over the strings-attached affections of his beautiful but married lover Clara. Clara seems the least complicated character of the three, but Kathy Voytko (of Broadway's Nine and standby to Stephanie J. Block in The Pirate Queen) is heartbreaking in the climactic speech in which she explains that she's unable to leave her husband for Giorgio because it would mean she would be separated from her son. Throughout, Voytko's vocals are simply stunning.

The secondary characters of the other officers in the remote outpost in which most of the action takes place are played by a crew of Chicago veterans Larry Adams, James Rank, Neil Friedman who are able to give their small roles enough texture to keep them for being simply cartoons, as they have frequently been played by other actors in other productions. Kevin Gudahl is a sensitive yet authoritarian Colonel Ricci while the recognizable veteran stage, TV and film actor Mike Nussbaum, is a lovable Doctor Tambouri. They're joined by two younger actors, Jeremy Rill and Joseph Tokarz, who just received praise for their roles in Bailiwick's Jerry Springer this past summer, completing a men's chorus of gorgeous voices.

Together with the full-sounding five-piece orchestra led by Ben Johnson, the cast delivers a lush acoustic performance of the delicate Sondheim score.

Eugene Lee's scenic design resume include the gigantic sets for Sweeney Todd, Ragtime and Wicked, but his minimal set for this production magically transports us to 19th century Italy with just a few pieces. We barely recognize it as a set while entering the theater, but in performance, under Paul Miller's lighting and complemented by Tazewell's authentic-looking costumes, the delicate arches of the theater's balcony railing become fixtures in the mansion housing the Army company's officers. Griffin makes good use of the bi-level playing area, using the balcony realistically as well as a means of representing the distance between Clara and Giorgio as their letters to each other are sung.

Griffin was given much attention for his chamber reductions of Pacific Overtures and Sunday in the Park with George in this space, and his My Fair Lady in other theaters. This Passion is no reduction, but a right-sized production of a piece which originated in a full-size Broadway house, but was really a chamber musical all along. The opportunity to experience this caliber of musical performance, insightful dramatic interpretation and visual design so intimately is a rare one that fans of musical theatre shouldn't miss.

Passion will be performed through November 11, 2007. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., with a 1:00 p.m. matinee on Wednesdays; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets, call the Box Office at 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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