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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Passion at The New Conservatory Theater Center

Also see Richard's review of Women Behind Bars

The New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting an in-concert version of Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's Passion. This production follows the two act presentation as done at the Queens Theater in London. The original production in New York was just one act with very little dialogue. The London production stretched out Passion by adding more dialogue, making it more comprehensible. As a fan of Mr. Sondheim's music, I have always considered him one of the giants of the American Musical Theater. However, I find the score of Passion to be his weakest and least memorable. It is extremely dark and depressing, the melodies are evasive and I doubt if any one is ever going to hum a song from the score. The music is somber with repeated motifs throughout the whole production. Sometimes the music is glorious, especially in the passages written for the chorus, and is beautiful when sung, but finally it becomes purgative.

This is the third time I have seen this Sondheim "opera." I saw the original on Broadway with Donna Murphy, Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie. I have to agree with critic John Lahr of the New Yorker who said the the music was only "surface sophistication." The New York production won 4 Tony Awards including Best Musical but it ran only 280 performances. The night we saw it, the audience was restless and they tittered in the wrong places (the same thing happened at the NCTC). The New York audiences started to call the musical "Passion-less" and some suggested that the name be changed to "Obsession."

I also saw the musical in London at the Queens Theater. The British wisely put in an intermission and added non-musical dialogue and I have to admit I felt it was better produced with Maria Friedman and William Ball taking the leads. Ms. Friedman was far more sympathetic than Ms. Murphy and I enjoyed her performance much more. Passion seemed less depressing in London.

Passion is based on Ettore Scola's brooding 1981 neo-romantic novel "Passione D'Amore" which in turn was based on "Fosca," an 1869 Italian novel by Iginio Tarchetti. The plot, on the surface, deals with a man's relationship with two women, one very beautiful and lively and the other extremely plain and depressing. Set in Italy in 1863, Giorgio, a somewhat vain and handsome military officer, played here by Steve Rhyne, is in the midst of a heady affair with a beautiful married woman named Clara. She is played by the enchanting Corrie Borris. Their opening song, "Happiness," is lovely. Giorgio is called by his commanders to serve in a remote provincial outpost where he makes the acquaintance of the commanding officer's willful and sickly cousin, Fosca. She is played by Michelle Starrs. Fosca becomes overly and neurotically obsessed with Giorgio, and he spends most of the musical eluding her, even telling her to stop bothering him. However, suddenly he shifts in a too quick moment from hating her to passionately loving her toward the end of Passion. This does not ring true since it makes very little sense why he changes so suddenly. Perhaps the production explores old romantic sensibilities prevalent in the mid 19th Century but now they seem immature and untrustworthy.

Fortunately, George Quick obtained two of the best singers in the Bay Area to sing the central roles of Giorgio and Fosca. This is the first time I have seen Steve Rhynes showing such great depth, singing this challenging score. He is extraordinary in the role. He is able to emphasize his physical appeal to his married mistress and is aesthetic enough to capture the obsessive love of Fosca.

Michelle Starrs has a bell clear voice although she tends to overdramatize her plight of being seriously ill. Sometimes she goes over the line to be almost comical, and here the audience begins tittering at what should be serious moments.

Clara is played by Corrie Borris, who has a full ranged voice, but it becomes a little thin by the second act. There were some minor problems with the high notes the night we saw the show. The rest of the small cast is distinctive in several of the numbers. Especially good is the quartet of army officers gossiping about the relationship of Giorgio and Fosca. Nathan Peterman, in the dual role of Count Ludovic and one of the officers, has an excellent operatic voice and is outstanding in the role of the count.

George Quick does a bang up job of directing this "opera," and his opening scene is lovely, with the men in tuxes and women in gowns, waltzing. It reminds me of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Everyone wears evening wear with Fosca looking a little like Ruth Buzzi's signature character. Dave Dobrusky, as usual, is a master at the keyboard and he adds the right notes to bolster this chamber piece.

Passion plays through March 31 at the NCTC, 25 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Tickets are $15 to $25. Call (415)861-8972 for tickets or visit www.ticketweb.com.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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