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Addicted to Love

passion
Lovers: Michael Babin and Susan Himes Powers

TheatreWorks argues the case in Sondheim's 'Passion'

By Philip Collins

LEAVE IT to Stephen Sondheim to take a seemingly untheatrical subject and wrestle it to the stage. Passion, Sondheim and author James Lapine's newest work, is among the most unlikely of causes they've yet taken up. Building a play upon the musical recitation of love letters would seem an unviable premise, but TheatreWorks' West Coast premiere of Passion argues the point eloquently and demonstrates how Sondheim's turn onto the road less traveled has led to somewhere meaningful and new.

Sondheim and Lapine have based their musical on Passione d'Amore, Ettore Scola's film about a sickly spinster's obsessive love for a handsome young army man, who is in turn ensconced in an affair with a married woman. With the soldier, Giorgio, stationed at a remote outpost, and his mistress, Clara, in Milan, much of their contact is reserved to written correspondence. The love-starved Fosca, however, is regularly in close physical proximity to her heart's desire, and her eventual winning of Giorgio's affections, despite all likelihood, constitutes Passion's testimony to love's transforming powers.

Passion awakens us to subtle truths of human nature while demonstrating how very malleable musical theater can be given ample amounts of intelligence, creativity, compassion and courage. Director Robert Kelley negotiates many of this one-act play's inherent difficulties, and with the finely integrated visual contributions of Eric Landisman's sets and John G. Rathman's lighting design, the production brings drama to life in a fashion that resonates with Sondheim's distinct aesthetic. Lita B. Liback's attentive musical direction supports Sondheim's score handsomely. The chamber-sized pit orchestra provides luxuriating textures with only occasional rough edges, and though the cast includes some uneven singing abilities, the overall treatment of songs is most satisfying.

The play is a sedentary spectacle, for aside from a few key scenes--a deathbed tryst, a duel and trivial high jinks among the soldiers--the show's dynamism draws upon the expression of characters' thoughts and feelings, rather than their actions. Sondheim compensates with his most rapturous score to date. His characteristic, chatty recitative style is fleshed out with welling arias of heartrending candor.

Sophisticated word play is of course pervasive, but here it is in service of emotionally probing aims. The thesis of Passion is blind, unconditional love, and Sondheim pulls no punches in putting this across. The work's core truths and musical apex issue from the unkissed lips of Fosca; nowhere more so than in the song "Loving You." Sondheim's setting opens quietly, in confessional bits but builds into soaring heights of lyricism.

Sara Dacey Charles, as the love-starved Fosca, anchors the show with a performance that convincingly integrates the character's pronounced physical frailty and her tenacious inner resolve. Her gentle alto rings with the depth and marred beauty of a weathered bell. Michael Babin's Giorgio has the strongest voice among the cast, and he exudes natural ease in his tempering of bravura qualities and vulnerability. He also expertly facilitates Giorgio's change of allegiances from carnal infatuation over Clara, to profound love of Fosca. As Giorgio's primary romantic opposite, Clara, Susan Himes Powers turns in an alluring characterization that is well acted and attractively intoned--when not in the upper tessitura.

The ensemble singing glows despite some unsettled moments. The robust deliveries of the soldier quartet manage to draw attention away from spotty voice leading, and the counterpoints among principals are generally compelling, if unbalanced. Sondheimites will find much worth in this piece. As staged drama, it is intellectually riveting and wrenchingly soulful; as music, a welcome leap over the top into the realm of true passion.


Passion plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm (May 12 and 19) and at 2pm (May 26) at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $15-$28. (415/903-6000).

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From the May 9-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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