O, Passion – How I have tried to love you!
Before I get to the Arden’s elegant, beautifully realized production – which almost changed my mind about the show – allow me to provide some context.
I was there in 1993 for the original. Passion was Sondheim’s first new musical on Broadway in nearly seven years, and the stakes were high. The story – a 19th century melodrama about a woman (Fosca) obsessed with a handsome officer (Giorgio), who himself is involved with a married woman (Clara) – sounded odd, certainly. But, hey – we’d learned to expect the unexpected from Sondheim and librettist James Lapine. Surely, they’d do something magical with it…
It took only minutes for my heart to sink – more precisely, for the “oohs and aahs” I’d hoped to experience to turn into a more despairing, “eeewww.”
Passion presented a deeply warped view of love – one that particularly pathologized female sexuality. Maybe if there were some sense of irony?… But no – the show was almost stupifyingly earnest. Sondheim’s often ravishing score was some compensation, but (and this was a shocker) not the platitudinous lyrics. The other positive factor was a virtuoso, star-making performance by Donna Murphy as Fosca, but it wasn’t sufficient to rescue it for me.
Periodically, I’ve revisited Passion, always hoping to find more in it. Mostly, I’ve been disappointed. My regard for the score has risen – but for the rest, if anything, it’s further diminished. Recently, I watched the telecast video of the original production, and even Murphy’s performance hasn’t aged well – she looks like Gilda Radner in a send-up of Dark Shadows.
Happily, at the Arden, the Fosca of actress Liz Filios is a revelation. Rather than homely, she’s tiny, fragile, almost childlike – instead of desperate, she’s sardonic, even appealing. It’s a performance without gimmicks or mannerisms – and it’s transformative. The Fosca/Giorgio/Clara triangle looks like a relationship, and not just a case of stalking. (Jennie Eisenhower’s nuanced work as Clara – glamorous, but with an edge – also gives additional perspective.)
There are more pleasures in the Arden version. Director Terrence Nolen and co-conceiver Jorge Couisneau have brought real polish to this chamber-size production. In the past, I’ve found a flashback sequence near the denouement one of hokiest elements of Passion – but done here on film, it’s marvelous and full of mystery. A stellar male ensemble, including Ben Dibble, Frank X, Michael Philip O’Brien and others, provide first-rate support, both musically and theatrically.
Any one of those guys is more appealing than the leading man, which illuminates an ironic reversal from the expected Passion scenario. With so sympathetic a Fosca, here it’s Giorgio who seems unworthy – why would she bother with someone so stiff and charisma-free? (As I was watching the show, a long forgotten movie title – Her Cardboard Lover – suddenly came back to me.) The problem here is mostly in Lapine and Sondheim’s writing, but though actor Ben Michael is matinee idol handsome and has a fine voice, he doesn’t animate the character beyond what’s on the page.
In the end, I will probably never like Passion, but the Arden production makes as good a case for it as I can imagine. 75 years ago, critic Brooks Atkinson famously ended a review of another musical by asking, “can you draw sweet water from a foul well?”
Liz Filios and Terry Nolen can.
Through June 28, Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org