To quote from its opening song, "Happiness:" Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion is anything but "just another love story." Instead, this musical masterpiece is a haunting exploration of the fine lines between obsession, infatuation, and true love. And while the Tony Award-winning work can provoke either giggles or yawns instead of sobs if misdirected, John Doyle's bare-bones production at Classic Stage Company succeeds splendidly, in part by in uncovering the humanity of its three main characters, Fosca, Giorgio, and Clara, all superbly embodied here by Judy Kuhn, Ryan Silverman, and Melissa Errico, respectively.
Adapted from Ettore Scola's film Passion d'Amore, the show first introduces us to seemingly blissful, stunningly beautiful lovers Clara and Giorgio, who sing of their intentions of living happily ever after (although we don't learn until much later that Clara is actually married with a child, a major impediment to such a future in 19th-century Italy). However, Giorgio, a military officer, is soon called to serve in a remote Italian town, where he comes into contact with his commanding officer's cousin Fosca, an unattractive, sickly, and deeply unhappy woman who has become an object of scorn and derision for the soldiers.
Giorgio, a man of extraordinary kindness and breeding, attempts to befriend Fosca. However, their initially amicable relationship changes when he becomes the unwanted target of her all-consuming obsession. But after his attempts to break off all contact with her result in her growing more ill, he comes to her rescue, out of obligation. As time progresses, though, Giorgio begins to understand what Fosca's devotion to him really means, especially after he asks Clara to make a difficult choice regarding their future.
The show's original 1994 Broadway production, directed by Lapine, almost felt operatic in nature, in part due to the brilliant, overwhelming performance of star Donna Murphy (who was made up to look almost like a living gargoyle). Wisely, Doyle has scaled back the piece in numerous ways to better fit CSC's more intimate space; at times, this Passion feels more like a play with music. (The director's minimalist set, essentially a marble tiled stage dominated by two large mirrors at the rear and mostly devoid of furniture, is in keeping with this lower-key take.)
Doyle's approach is most evident in the beautifully modulated performance of Kuhn (who previously played Fosca as part of the Kennedy Center's famed "Sondheim Celebration" in 2002). She is physically less-than-appealing, with her ghostly skin, murky brown wig, and dowdy duds (by Ann Hould-Ward), but her bitterness that makes her more repellent than her appearance. As she softens, physically and mentally, it may be easier for some audiences to understand how Giorgio can succumb to her advances. Long one of Broadway's most effortless yet intelligent singers, Kuhn also cuts straight to the heart of her three big numbers, "I Read," "I Wish I Could Forget You," and "Loving You."
Errico, resplendent in a flowing yellow dress and luxurious curls, has never been better on stage. Her glorious soprano is slightly deepened here, making the most of Sondheim's complex melodies. And while she expertly captures Clara's occasional vanity and callowness, she seems nonetheless a substantial enough person to be more than just an object of lust for Giorgio, but a plausible life partner.
As great as these two women are, the production's linchpin--and revelation--is Silverman. No doubt, his matinee-idol looks are perhaps the key reason why two women are so attracted to him while his fellow soldiers despise him. Ultimately, though, it's his extraordinary ability as an actor to navigate Giorgio's tricky emotional transitions (something his Broadway predecessor Jere Shea simply could not manage) that make his character so compelling. His Giorgio is no plaster saint, but true flesh and blood--a man constantly struggling to balance responsibility with desire. Indeed, for the first time, I am now sincerely sorry that Rebecca (in which Silverman was cast in the leading role of Maxim deWinter) did not make it to Broadway this season.
Doyle once again proves to be unusually savvy in casting performers (and, in case you've been wondering, no one plays an instrument). Stephen Bogardus, Tom Nelis, and Will Reynolds make particularly outstanding contributions as Giorgio's fellow military men, more-than-ably supported by Jeffry Denman, Jason Michael Evans, Ken Krugman, and Orville Mendoza as the rest of the company.
While it's possible some people still might not find this musical's denouement convincing, I suspect most audiences will fall head over heels in love with this Passion.