I was fortunate enough to catch the luminous revival of Passion at the Classic Stage Company earlier this year. Of the show, Stephen Sondheim has said that it's about "how the force of someone's feelings can crack you open, and how it is the life force in a deadened world." Clearly he and James Lapine meant to write a story that gets under your skin. For the first time, the show does just that.
When it first came out on Broadway in 1994, Passion seemed to many (myself included) like a stodgy, overwrought costume drama with a baffling storyline. As enacted by Donna Murphy, Fosca's plight was completely unmoving. I was never convinced by the shift in Giorgio's feelings at the end; it was hard to believe that he could ever think of such a woman as being anything but bizarre and pathetic. Murphy received acclaim for her portrayal of an insatiable stalker, but for the most part she steered clear of baring Fosca's soul.
Not so here. Passion has finally found a cast and director worthy of its great score. This highly personal production serves as a striking example of Sondheim's famous mantra "Less Is More." When completely stripped of its melodrama and period stuffiness, the show emerges as a spellbinding work of theatrical art. The story benefits enormously from the minimized space, sets and ensemble. John Doyle's decision to exclude nearly all the female roles was a strong one; a particularly effective scene is the Flashback number, in which Fosca's past is acted out by the soldiers.
Judy Kuhn is without question the best actress (and singer) yet to play Fosca. Fosca is not a likable person, but an extremely human one. It's astonishing really, the lengths to which we will go to attain love. Kuhn fearlessly plunges into her character's wounded psyche and makes us empathize even with her most desperate, humiliating behavior. Her rendition of "I Wish I Could Forget You" is devastatingly sad. Melissa Errico was exquisite as Clara, but unfortunately developed bronchitis in the middle of the run. Rebecca Luker, stepping in at the last minute, sings well. However, Ryan Silverman's performance as Giorgio is what cements the show. A deeply sensitive, intuitive performer, Silverman is unlike anyone I have ever seen or heard in the role. His penultimate scene with Fosca has to be one of the most grippingly painful, beautiful, emotionally fulfilling moments ever in a musical. Even just hearing it on the album is chilling.
And despite the pared-down setting, the score doesn't actually sound compromised at all. There is some truly beautiful music here, and under the expert musical direction of Rob Berman, it comes in lush and full and hits you just as it should. This is about as good of a version of Passion as we will ever see and quite frankly, about as good of a Sondheim revival as we will ever see. In years to come, it will go down as THE definitive rendering of the show. This disc set should be in the collection of anyone who loves risky, emotionally brave theatre.