A pretty face has never seemed like quite as much of burden as it does in John Doyle's delicate revival of PASSION, at Classic Stage. The musical tells of a handsome young captain in the nineteenth-century Italian army who is sent to a remote military outpost, where he is relentlessly stalked by a sickly and aggressive young woman given to hysterical fits. And first, you might imagine that this woman, Fosca, bears most of the torment of her unrequited obsession. But as time goes by, the captain, Georgio, starts to unravel: it's clear that before Fosca, he's never thought much about love beyond mere flesh, and the results are unsettling. On their own, his good looks prove no match for the potency of all-consuming love, and by the time a character sings, "Beauty is power--- longing, a disease," it's safe to say that Georgio has come to believe quite the reverse.
PASSION, which originally opened on Broadway in 1994, is the most recent venture of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, the team that had dazzled and confounded uptown audiences with such innovative works as "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Into the Woods." More operatic and more intimate than any previous Sondheim show, PASSION never managed a respectable Broadway run--- and indeed, it's hard to imagine this humble work succeeding in such cavernous environs, where the subtleties of character and emotional nuance often get lost in the rafters.
Doyle runs no risk of this at Classic Stage, which he has outfitted in elegant marble flooring, high-backed chairs, and little else. The space is engulfed with the bodies, the passions, and the hypnotic power of Sondheim's score. Lapine and Sondheim tell the story almost entirely through letters--- plot developments are read, instead of acted--- but the piece is as dynamic and suspenseful as any traditional narrative. According to the clock, the evening runs an even 100 minutes without intermission, but when it's over, you feel like you've sat through a single, sustained love song. (Sondheim has provided no suitable break for applause until the very end.)
As the homely and troubled Fosca, Judy Kuhn brings an electric single-mindedness that never feels overwrought. She wisely lets the music do her work for her, and this pays off conspicuously in the show's most stunning aria, "I Wish I Could Forget You." Doyle and Kuhn have seemingly conceived a Fosca less grotesque than in past productions; rather than wretched, Kuhn reads as plain-faced and ailing, if a tad older than the role would seem to call for.
Melissa Errico similarly shines as Clara, the married mistress of Georgio at the story's beginning. As Georgio's sentimental education intensifies in his faraway outpost, Clara's dispatches from home take on an air of hollowness. Errico's beauty and glorious soprano perfectly capture a woman for whom love is a practical matter. The ensemble of soldiers solidly dispatches their duties, with Tom Nelis a standout as the doctor.
Georgio is played by Ryan Silverman, a former Raoul of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA who is blessed with the looks of a leading man and a magnificently clear tenor. While Silverman impressively navigates the nuances of the score, he is not a natural in the part. For Fosca's attraction to make sense, Georgio must stand apart from the other soldiers as a brooding, sensitive soul. Silverman cuts a much more jocular figure, like the high-school athlete that every girl covets, and seems uncomfortable confronting weighty matters. Still, there's a seductive sadness in the performance that keeps you on his side. Maybe he doesn't know what he wants, but you do hope he finds it.
And really, that's the point of PASSION: in matters of the heart, how can you know what you really desire until it's in front of you? "Love" would seem to encompass a range of disparate feelings, probably far more than a single word can bear. But Fosca's unapologetic embrace of this breathing, screaming, elemental force that outlives even death, is a reminder to those of us with busy and hyper-rational lives that maybe we, too, could use a little more passion.