Every time I see "Passion," that ever-wise Stephen Sondheim-and-James Lapine affair probing the decidedly tenuous relationship between adoration and ecstasy, new things pop. On Monday night at the aptly intimate Theo Ubique Theatre in Rogers Park, it was the line, "Why is love so easy to give and so hard to receive?"
A fine question, even if takes some pondering before you see its veiled complexity. Is that a result of self-consciousness or mere ineptitude on the part of the loved? Hmm. More likely, malevolence.
Love affairs rarely distribute power equally. The more-loved always has the upper hand, an advantage undermined by total receptiveness. But is the loved typically happier than the loving? Ay, there's the rub, and there, really, is the entire point of "Passion," penned in 1994, set in 19th century Italy and dealing with the obsessive love of a sickly, even creepy woman named Fosca for a soldier named Giorgio, even as that handsome dude is carrying on an affair with the very lovely, and very married, Clara. The question of the night is what will Giorgio do. Can Fosca reach him, unhinge him?
Reviews of Theo Ubique shows always need to address the varying expectations of those who have entered its cozy confines before, and those who are neophytes. And since Sondheim shows come with a traveling audience, there is a better-than-usual chance you are in the latter category. In that case, you can expect to be surprised by the fullness, heart and competence of director Fred Anzevino's production, which somehow packs a cast of 11, an orchestra of four, and a grand Adam Veness design (replete with a bed and huge table that disappear into the walls) into a space little bigger than some living rooms. You likely will be struck by how well a theater where Fosca and Giorgio are writhing about two feet from your cocktail serves this particular title, which is, after all, about intimacy and its limits. You will for sure be moved by the quality of the singing; the ensemble work is excellent and, in this space, achieves the best kind of surround sound, which is the live kind.
Regulars, though, expect all these things going in, just as they surely as they expect to hear the CTA voice declare the closing of the doors through the walls of this "L" track-hugging theater. At Theo Ubique, especially during a Sondheim musical, that takes on quite the existential implication. "Passion," nonetheless, is an exceptionally challenging musical to stage in any size of theater. Theo Ubique mostly pulls it off. Mostly.
Certainly, Colette Todd is beautifully cast as Clara. She surely puts herself out there as they say — even throws herself out there. You just can't play that part in this sized theater without embracing risk and vulnerability. And so it goes. In, say, "Happiness," a song that she and Peter Oyloe (as Giorgio) sing very well, Todd offers up just the right kind of optimistic exuberance, which means the fragile, perchance hollow, kind. There is that air of desperation that lovers feel, especially those playing outside the rules. You see the titular happiness; and then you see it dissolve into a life of fear. As Harold Ramis' rabbi said, we always want more of what we don't need.
There also is an awful lot to like about Danni Smith's gutsy Fosca, here a gray-visaged woman with a fevered brow, damaged soul and two eyebrows that seem to operate on different planes of existence (one far up, one low down). The show is saying, of course, that Fosca, seemingly the ugly loser in the game of passion, actually is the happiest of this trio. Smith maybe misses the highest reaches of that range and I think "Loving You" needs higher stakes and more declarative force, but it's still a moving and truthful performance in one of the toughest Broadway roles of the last two decades.
Oyloe has a tougher time. He could be a fine Giorgio: He most certainly can sing the part and he has the looks. But he tends to use passive neutrality as his baseline here, which just is not ideal for a show that constantly makes you want to know what Giorgio is actually thinking. What? What? In places, far more concrete choices are required, especially when the two happy-miserable women in his life are spilling their guts right on the tables of the audience.
When: Through April 27
Where: Theo Ubique at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $34-$64 at 800-595-4849 or theo-u.com/passionCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun