Despite remarkable gains in equality between the sexes, an abiding inequity remains. Although sexual appeal in men can be derived by possession of a number of different attributes, from power to money, from intellect to athleticism, women’s appeal is still largely determined by physical appearance. And while exceptions exist, the pairing of a man better looking than the woman often elicits comments like, “what does he see in her?” as if to say that the plain don’t deserve a place in the sun.
Stephen Sondheim became familiar with the 1869 novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, through a film version, Passione d’amore, which deals with this asymmetry. His creative juices flowing, Sondheim enlisted his frequent collaborator James Lapine to pen a book for staging the work. Taking place in mid-19th century Italy, the story follows the amours of Giorgio, an army officer recently posted to an isolated alpine garrison. There, Fosca, the homely and sickly cousin of his commanding officer insinuates herself into his life. Although Giorgio reveals to her that he has a beautiful and devoted lover in Milan, Fosca becomes obsessed and inexorable in her pursuit of him, willing to compromise her dignity along the way.
Passion holds a rather unusual place in Sondheim’s, and indeed, Broadway’s catalogue of great musicals. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1994 (a total of 10 nominations, 4 wins), with only 280 performances on the Great White Way, it had the shortest run in the history of Tony Best Musicals. That factor alone suggests that this is not a piece with broad audience appeal but one deeply respected by much of the artistic and intellectual parts of the spectrum. Perhaps one reason that it has not fared well at the box office is that its overall tone is dark, and that it has very little that would qualify as comic relief. Even the “love” scenes between Giorgio and his lover Clara are more observed than involving. This is a relentlessly serious, but very well crafted, narrative with a highly melodic score.
Producing a Broadway musical on a stage as small as Custom Made’s presents a challenge, but one that the company has successfully overcome before. For the greater part, Passion fits well, as scenes with two or three characters dominate the dramatic arc and the bulk of songs relate to the figures in the love triangle. Group scenes like dining hall gatherings are semi-staged with the absence of a dining table. On one hand, this accents the skimping on production values, yet it does somewhat reinforce the overall intimacy of the work.
As Fosca, the character who motivates the action, Heather Orth is stellar, capturing the anguish of a woman doubly punished physically and lacking any immediate family. She connects with Giorgio initially as both are lovers of books. But, so desperate for intellectual and physical interaction, she often breeches social norms in attempts to reach out to him. For theater goers who feel it is important to be able to empathize with characters in a show, some will point to her behaviors as off-putting. But how can we not have compassion with the sorrows of the afflicted and tolerate their social gaffes?
By most measures, Giorgio is admirable, but he stumbles into situations that tax his coping ability. John Melis offers a convincing portrayal, however, his recurring pursed lips expression conveys more of a sense of petulance than a man of his appeal should show. As Clara, Juliana Lustenader’s role offers less range than the other lead characters, but she totally inhabits the charm and desirability of Clara. Each lead player’s singing is exemplary and well suited to the role – Orth’s edgy mezzo, Lustenader’s bright soprano, and Melis’s warm baritone.
Passion is a distinctive and less performed work from one of the greatest creators of musical theater, and this production captures its essence. Sondheim enthusiasts will definitely want to see it, and it is well worth experiencing for the broader public as well.
Passion with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays on its stage at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA through July 20, 2019.