Sondheim’s “Passion” at Custom Made Theatre

Carol Benet

Steven Sondheim, almost now in his 90s, is the most important living composer and lyricist of the musical.  His works are half-way between opera and musical comedy.  They are sui generis and wonderful.

His “Passion” is now enjoying an excellent run at The Custom Made Theatre Co. in San Francisco through July 20, 2019. With Sondheim’s music and lyrics pared with the book by his collaborator James Lapine, this intense and serious work came to Broadway in 1995 after “Sunday in the Park with George” and before “Into the Woods” in 1987, their joint hits. These three plays with the dozens of others Sondheim produced cement him as an American treasure.  He creates a unique form of musical drama that will last through the ages.

The idea for “Passion” came to Sondheim after he saw Ettore Scola’s film “Passione d’Amore” that in turn was inspired by the novel “Fosca” by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti.   It tells of a woman Fosca who had a tragic marriage that left her hysterical in the 19th century description of the disease.  In the play she she falls madly in love with Giorgio (John Melis), a captain in the Italian army, by merely glimpsing at him from a window above.

The play starts with a debilitated Giorgio at his desk writing.  He is writing and recalling his beautiful mistress Clara (Juliana Lustenader).  He remembers the impassioned  scene when he told her that he has been transferred from Milan to a remote post in the mountains.  It is 1863 after the “Risorgimento” when Italy is being besieged on all sides.  There he meets the Colonel Ricci (Domonic Tracy) whose cousin Fosca (Heather Orth) can be heard screaming from his house where she now lives.   The doctor Tambourri (Jake Gleason) tells Giorgio that Fosca suffers hysterical convulsions but the reason is she suffered a difficult marriage to a phony gold digger Count Ludovic (Zaya Kolia) who left her family impoverished.

Fosca falls in love with Giorgio the minute she sees him and her compulsion puts him in the middle of a love triangle from which he cannot extricate himself. He is caught between the long-distance love affair with Clara through the letters they write each other and are enacted as scenes, and with the mad Fosca, an ungainly crazy woman subject to fits and a weakened heart. The reasons for Fosca’s madness are complicated and the modernistic music and lyrics describe all the difficulties with dissonant contemporary music suitable for the opera stage. Giorgio cannot get away from Fosca but the story takes an surprising turn later on when the meaning of true love is diagnosed and described in an interesting way through song. In it’s operatic presentation, the show is filled with arias, duets, trios, choruses and recitative.

The music in “Passion” shows that Sondheim learned well from one of his teachers, the famous classical composer Milton Babbitt.  Three instruments on stage, an unusual trio of cello, piano and flute (two kinds) and clarinet, are played by very good musicians Brian Allan Hobbs (also conductor), Ami Hashimoto and Sheldon Brown. The military drums in the background announce the entrance and departure of the fine chorus of military officers Carl Lucania, Micah Watterson, Roy Eiklelberry, Micah Watterson, Max Seijas and Kolia and Tracy.  Several of the actors play multiple parts.

Bernadette Flynn’s set design is perfect for this small stage.  It switches from bedroom to dining room with the mountain setting replicated in a painting on the walls.  Kathleen Qui’s costumes, especially for the beautiful Clara as well as for the plain Fosca, are terrific.  Tina Johnson’s lighting makes the stage come alive.  Anton Hedman’s sound is appropriate although I do not understand why the singers have to have face microphones in this small theater where their voices should suffice.  The little, colorless cords around the faces are very obvious and distracting and the sound is sometimes too strong.

Brian Katz’s The Custom Made Theater at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco produces many fine  plays including the last one of the season Sondheim’s “Passion”.  Tickets through July 20 may be purchased from 415 798 2682 or

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to and all posts by Carol Benet →