Two very different love stories make up the plot of the James Lapine-Stephen Sondheim musical Passion.
The story that opens the musical - the curtain rises on a couple in bed - is characterized by "happiness," a recurring word in the initial lyrics.
The second story, which evolves in the course of the musical, has nothing to do with happiness. It's characterized by obsession and described as being: "As permanent as death,/Implacable as stone./A love that, like a knife,/Has cut into a life."
Obsession isn't a comfortable theme for audiences, and this 1994 musical has never been a comfortable show. Of course, great theater should be disquieting and disturbing; it should shake audiences up and make them think. Passion does that, but it also makes theatergoers titter with inappropriate laughter.
Director Eric Schaeffer's production in the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration stars a trio of glorious lead actors who make the most of one of the composer's most romantic and lush scores. The production also incorporates some minor textual modifications and an additional song (written for the 1996 London production) intended to explain the crux of the action, which is based on Ettore Scola's 1981 movie, Passione d'Amore.
But though they are few, those inappropriate laughs still crop up, and they're indicative of the musical's central flaw, a plot that never fully wins an audience's sympathy and is at times even off-putting.
The plot's two love stories are connected because they involve the same man - Giorgio, a 19th-century Italian army officer played by Michael Cerveris. An actor with a resonant voice that does ample justice to Sondheim's rich score, Cerveris plays Giorgio with a shaved head and goatee. It's a look that's more 21st century than 19th and one that seems to deliberately contradict the matinee-idol quality called for by the script.
This is a problem since conventional definitions of beauty are of major significance in this tale, which originated as a 1869 epistolary novel called Fosca, by Igino Tarchetti. At the start of the musical, Giorgio is in love with an exquisite married woman named Clara, portrayed by Rebecca Luker with grace and loveliness that extend to her bell-like singing.
Their affair is interrupted when Giorgio is transferred to a remote army post under the command of a colonel (John Leslie Wolfe) who lives with his homely, sickly cousin, Fosca. Costumed and made up to look waif-thin to the point of being skeletal, Judy Kuhn plays Fosca with an unrelenting intensity that carries over to the melancholy in her vibrato-tinged voice.
Fosca quickly becomes obsessed with Giorgio, which is not surprising. Besides being described as handsome, Giorgio is presented as the rare cultured army officer among a group so boorish they can't get through a meal without referring to either women or horses. (They also love to gossip and are so much of the same crude mind that Sondheim frequently ends their sung interludes with bits of barbershop-style harmony.)
What is surprising is that Giorgio falls in love with Fosca, a situation abetted by the army doctor who is treating her and who believes that Giorgio can calm her "hysterical convulsions." But instead of assuaging her condition, Giorgio gradually becomes obsessed himself. It's almost as if her fixation is a contagious disease.
The doctor's role is crucial in this, and - whether due to the director or actor - Philip Goodwin's portrayal is partly responsible for the production's tonal difficulties. From the first, Goodwin's character comes across as smug and superior, and these unattractive traits intensify to the point where he appears to scoff at his patient.
At least one of the lines Lapine has added is intended to offer some comic relief: The doctor tells Giorgio he has brought Fosca into the reluctant captain's life "to get her out of mine." But there's no indication of any previous personal involvement between doctor and patient, and by this point, too many unwanted titters have occurred to make the tonal shift clear.
Another odd note is struck by designer Derek McLane's set, whose omnipresent white-shuttered walls are oddly reminiscent of Rob Howell's set for the current Broadway production of The Graduate (seen at the in January).
In Passion, these louvered walls serve as backdrop for Giorgio and Clara's intimate boudoir scenes as well as the scenes at the military base, and despite Howell Binkley's stunning lighting, the result fails to effectively evoke either locale.
Passion won the Tony Award for best musical (and book and score) in a year when its chief competition was Beauty and the Beast. In a sense, Passion is a reverse Beauty and the Beast. In the classic fairy tale, love transforms the beast into a handsome man. In Passion, love transforms a handsome man into an afflicted soul.
Giorgio's love for Fosca might be seen as having an ennobling effect on her. But the flip side is emphasized here - her love has an enervating, morbid effect on him. Even the added song - in which Giorgio insists, "No one has truly loved me/Till Fosca" - is an insufficient explanation for an emotion so destructive it ultimately seems pathological, not romantic.
To read J. Wynn Rousuck's interview with Stephen Sondheim, go to www.baltimoresun.com/sondheim.