Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Custom Made Theatre Co.
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Wink, Once, and A Chorus Line

John Melis and Heather Orth
Photo by Jay Yamada
"In war you know the enemy, not always so in life." This line from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion neatly sums up the intrigue, betrayals, infidelities—and yes, burning amorous desires—that are at the heart of this show, one of Sondheim's most recent musicals (it premiered on Broadway in 1994), and the last of three collaborations between himself and Lapine. (The first two, of course, being Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.) Though Passion received mostly good notices from critics and won the Tony Award for Best Musical, it performed poorly at the box office and closed after only 280 performances.

It's no wonder Passion is a hard sell for audiences. It's the story (based on a movie by Ettore Scola, which is in turn based on a novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti) of an Italian army captain, stationed in Milan in the mid-19th century, who is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Clara but is transferred to a remote outpost where he meets his commanding officer's cousin Fosca, a plain and sickly woman who—spoiler alert—somehow manages to capture the heart of Captain Bachetti. One reason given for the relatively short duration of the original Broadway run was audiences' reluctance to accept how a handsome, brave Army officer could fall for an unattractive, unwell, and narcissistically needy woman. Another problem might be the music, which has a few lovely moments, but lacks the lyrical wordplay and memorable melodies of Sondheim's more commercially successful works.

The production at The Custom Made Theatre Co. benefits from two good performances—by John Melis as Captain Bachetti and Juliana Lustenader as his lover Clara—and one outstanding performance by Heather Orth as Fosca. Lustenader has a gentle soprano that aligns nicely with Sondheim's melodies, and plays Clara with a subtle superiority that feels in tune with an attractive woman who knows she can usually get what she wants simply by the virtue of her beauty. Melis boasts a gorgeous baritone. His tone is like creamed gravel—smooth and silky, but with a rough edge hiding just underneath.

But it's Heather Orth who is the star of this show. In last year's production of Jesus Christ Superstar, she showed off her ability to hit the low notes as the high priest Caiaphas. This role requires the full extent of her range and she responds beautifully, with clear, bright high notes and desperate, sultry low tones. She hits her consonants hard, almost spitting them with anger and rage at the way the world has treated her. When she's not singing, she is delivering a lovely portrayal of a woman so wounded by a scoundrel of a man that it knocks her into a sickbed. Orth moves with the deliberation of someone who knows a wrong step or a too-quick movement can knock her flat with pain.

The supporting cast are solid singers, but the acting overall (other than Orth) is uninspired and ordinary, with performers speaking their lines clearly enough, but rarely discovering the humanity of their characters and revealing that humanity to us.

Director Stuart Bousel is to be complimented for using the small stage well, never crowding the action, and moving his actors with purpose and intention, helping to propel the story through motivated physical action. It's clear he spent significant time working out how to present the story in a cramped space without diminishing the scale of the piece. But scenic designer Bernadette Flynn seems to have spent very little time creating the environment for the action. The three-piece band (occasionally aided by recorded drums and bugles) is placed upstage right, almost as an afterthought. There's no need to see them, and placing the band just offstage would have allowed more room for Bousel to expand the action, as well as preventing the music from overwhelming the vocals, as happens at times. Her "set" consists of an oddly painted backdrop and a handful of wrinkled curtains hanging haphazardly around the space. It's almost as if opening night arrived and Custom Made realized they had totally forgotten to design a set and sent a production assistant to Bed Bath & Beyond to solve the problem.

I'd like to be as passionate about Passion as I am about Heather Orth's performance, but the lackluster staging and a weak (for Sondheim) score left me feeling cold and not at all in love.

Passion, through July 20, 2019, at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $36-$40, and are available at