Arguably, Passion is the least known of all Stephen Sondheim’s major works for theater, despite winning a slew of 1994 Tony Awards, perhaps because it’s much more a chamber opera than a musical. The absence of production numbers or big musical climaxes has limited its appeal, along with its somber story and mood. For Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new production, director Gary Griffin honors Passion as a chamber work in a meticulous, elegant, and pleasingly refined new production — one that still may not broaden the work’s appeal.
Based on a European film by Ettore Scola, Passion is set in late 19th-century Italy among military officers in a backwater town. When a handsome captain, Giorgio (Adam Brazier), is posted there, he quickly becomes the obsession of the commanding officer’s unattractive, clammy-skinned, perpetually ill cousin Fosca (Ana Gasteyer). Mannerly and affable, Giorgio at first is cordial with Fosca until she stalks him and throws herself at him, heedless of his feelings. Giorgio has a beautiful mistress, Clara (Kathy Voytko), in Milan with whom he maintains a relationship through love letters and furloughs; but Fosca insinuates herself between the Giorgio and Clara in surprising ways that deepen and darken all three characters.
Some theaterogers cannot acccept Fosca as a heroine, since she is not only physically unattractive but emotionally selfish, self-pitying, and dangerous. Others find this tale of love and obsession dispassionate to the point of alienation, beginning with Sondheim’s seemingly-aloof music. It’s not that Sondheim couldn’t write fulsome music with the sweep and ardor of physical ecstasy and/or emotional abandon; it’s that he wouldn’t. He did, however, write lyrics resonant with both serious and comic wit, such as the intentionally platitudinous opening love songs between Giorgio and Clara. And the music is gorgeous. Indeed, rather, like a fine port wine the score is deeply atmospheric, richly concentrated, and yet quite delicate, especially as played by this excellent and blessedly unamplified five-piece orchestra, conducted by Ben Johnson.
The 12-person cast, which includes such Shakespeare Theater veterans as Kevin Gudahl, Mike Nussbaum, and Neil Friedman, is uniformly good. For Gasteyer, who starred in Chicago (and on Broadway) as Elphaba in Wicked, it’s a snap playing an odd creature. The real pleasure is how her intensity plays in a 300-seat house. She makes the smallest gesture — such as touching Giorgio’s hand — intensely dramatic.
As Clara, Voytko projects not only beauty, but intelligence in what is the most stereotypical of the lead roles. The blandly handsome Brazier has charm and manly appeal without projecting (or needing) strutting sexuality; but he may be too boyish for some. Under Griffin’s direction, all three characters ultimately are sympathetic, even though audiences still might find some of their personal choices odd.
Scenic designer Eugene Lee has turned Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s black box into a shallow thrust stage, with steeply-raked seating in front and shallow mezzanine seating along each side. The back wall is a two-story galleried arcade, the levels connected by a staircase. Lace-like iron arches define the three upper galleries, while the three below are separated by thin iron columns and red curtains. The upper gallery is the orchestra loft, with room for performers to pass by or access the staircase.
With never a blackout in the show’s 105-minute running time, Passion is played out in pools of light — mostly soft-edged pools — designed by Paul Miller. Full-stage lighting and/or bright lighting are rare, as are brightly-colored costumes in Paul Tazewell’s lovely designs, which eschew any suggestion of 19th-century military gaudiness. The subdued costumes, the pools of light and the set’s black wrought-iron character all emphasize the solemnity of the work, but also achieve a sort-of controlled dazzle.