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PS Classics

For the tenth time, the PS Classics label takes a score by Stephen Sondheim, previously recorded on another label with another cast, and shines a new and differently-focused light. Producer Tommy Krasker again attentively and sensitively makes the labor of love glow with sparkling sound where the excellent orchestra seems to dance with the singers' voices. But, at every turn, there's serious and shaded acting going on and that takes center stage in the Classic Stage Company interpretation directed by John Doyle and conducted by Rob Berman, who is also the pianist in the nine-person instrumental ensemble.

The committed cast of this recent Off-Broadway revival is consistently and unblinkingly involved and earnest. Although arguably more understated than others playing the troubled and burdened Fosca, Judy Kuhn commands attention and has her own quieter but finely-focused fierce determination. While pity for her character is earned, she does not shrink from the overbearing relentlessness and potentially distancing single-mindedness. On the recording, she is reunited with Rebecca Luker as Clara; the two were in the cast of the earlier Kennedy Center production in 2002. "Reunited" is perhaps a misleading word as the two leading women characters never meet in the story. (Melissa Errico was Clara in this CSC cast, but was not available when the recording took place.) The luminous Luker soprano and acting chops make much of the role, the least fleshed-out of the three leads, mostly represented in love letters and lush declarations of dedication during in-person liaisons with lover Giorgio. But she seems to be thinking and reacting, not just lost in lust or a mistress with a "love-is-blind" mindlessness. She comes across as more maturely analytical when she reflects on how their shared glance in the park led to empathy and then the love they're bathed in. There's an ache in the way she sings of missing him, a wary and worried undercurrent that goes beyond her absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder role. As semi-stalwart soldier Giorgio, the man both women are enamored of, Ryan Silverman turns in a very admirable performance. He's strong willed, but believably shaken and more than just taken aback by the unsettling, challenging encounters with Fosca. His emotion-etched singing is attractive, interesting in its coiled restraint and ruffled edges. We feel his pain as he shows the strain of all that's not fair in love and war, reinforced by the repeated phrase, "military madness."

Nuances are captured, timing so often seems crisply perfect, lines and musical phrases seem to echo and resonate strongly, with an intense theatricality. In a 2-CD set including much of James Lapine's dialogue and recitative, the story in all its angst and glory plays out scene by scene before our ears, the cumulative effect so much more than the sum of its individual parts. One may recall that, in previews, the playbill of the original Broadway production, nearly two decades ago now, didn't list titles for musical selections. And indeed, they still often flow almost unnoticed into one another. Connected by a mini-reprise or repeated motif, the recurring military drumbeat or brass, lyric lines sometimes overlap, a letter's writer and recipient sharing the reading of it. Graced and laced with the sounds of instruments, spoken dialogue gives way to sung or semi-sung lines, rather than having characters "burst" into song jarringly. Many tracks are under—or just over—a minute in length, but things flow more than they seem choppy or disjointed. Granted, it can be grim, but Passion is also musically plush. In its oft-heavy-going drama, it can be dour or drowning in dizzying definitions and whirlpools of L-O-V-E. "I thought I knew what love was" is an early line which becomes a premature assurance of knowing as the characters, through pain and perspective, find that there are many kinds of love—some seemingly selfish, some unconditional and perhaps deeper and more complex and costly than initially thought. That comes through in high relief in this recording as the bottom line, due to the caring and careful examinations and declamations. Rewardingly, much of that successfully comes through without excessive melodrama and breast-beating and wailing. The show is high drama as written and doesn't need more anguish and weeping or sweeping sounds to be lobbed onto it.

The alphabetically-billed cast boasts fine performances from Stephen Bogardus as Fosca's cousin, the in-command colonel, and Jeffry Denman as the lieutenant among several male performers. The luxury of a double-disc set's playing length allows us to hear reprises and the men's gossipy and sarcastic suppositions, including flashes of the Sondheim witty way with words (noting that Giorgio, in his military assignment, is "sick of being stuck in the sticks"). An extended sequence recounting Fosca's surprising back-story engenders some sympathy and understanding, perhaps wisely inserted to ensure that the character be more than a one-dimensional object of pity or, more dangerously, just too much the haranguing harridan. Interestingly, as performed here, one can feel sympathy at different times for all three of the main characters and their growing awareness of what love can be, mean and cost is quite convincing.

And "convincing" is the key word here. It really works. We're pulled in and our emotions are pulled apart. For those musical theatre fans and Sondheim devotees who "respect" and "admire" Passion more than truly getting into it—and that had included myself—this new PS Classics/Classic Stage match may push us into embracing it as a real classic.

- Rob Lester

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