Stephen Sondheim’s musical PASSION comes to a pivotal point at which a young soldier, Giorgio (Ben Michael), suddenly becomes deeply enamored of the homely, lonely, Fosca (Liz Filios). It is a profoundly moving moment because like Giorgio, your feelings towards the obsessive Fosca, have previously been revulsion mingled with pity. It seems impossible that the young soldier could jilt the more appealing Clara (Jennie Eisenhower, who plays her as a remarkable woman — witty, conversational, in sincere and obvious love), who remains in Milan, while he fulfills his military service in a bleak Italian military outpost.
Having seen PASSION six times before director Terrence J. Nolen version for Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company, I know where the dramatic turnabout occurs. But at the Arden it doesn’t.
Oh, the climactic sequence goes by. It’s part of James Lapine’s script . No one directing the musical would think of leaving it out, but in Nolen’s PASSION it passes without impact. Nothing in actor Ben Michael’s demeanor, manner, or voice gives you to immediately perceive that a cataclysmic event is taking place, that he suddenly acquires such an visceral, complete understanding and bond with Fosca that he will forgo all he and Clara have planned to reciprocate. It isn’t until a subsequent scene, is which Giorgio is kind, warm, and solicitous to Fosca that we realize something monumental has happened. By then, what should have been an epiphany, and could have been profoundly moving, is reduced to a curiosity.
A production that looks as if it’s going well and is going to create the atmosphere and intensity needed to show Giorgio’s competing romances, and Fosca’s triumphing personal gifts, falls apart because Nolen has made two fundamental, and fatal, mistakes: He has allowed Ben Michael to be a voice without a libido and he has displayed his directorial tendency (endemic to his work in general) to soften scenes and situations, to make them less intense or confrontational.
On many levels, Nolen’s PASSION is quite enjoyable. Jorge Cousineau’s stage becomes quite grand, with his charming, edifying videos often enhancing a scene, establishing a mood, or giving palpable context to a setting or situation. In lighting, Thom Weaver finds the gray dimness in the Italian barracks while contrasting the remote countryside to the opulence and passion of Milan. The soldiers’ uniforms, royal blue, with red half-lapels, by Rosemarie E. McKelvey, and elegantly handsome and make the entire PASSION cast look alert and ready for action. Ryan Touhey, as usual, leads a flawless orchestra. Sondeim’s much-dismissed score has several instances of lush melody.
Eisenhower sounds grand in this production. Michael proves how adept a singer he is, though he never conveys the passion he allegedly feels for two different women. Liz Filios is a wonderful singer and a marvelous Fosca. She knows how to show her character’s obsession while letting her finer, more laudable traits come through. The texture with which Filios endows Fosca elevates her from being a clinging harridan who misinterprets every kindness proffered her.
The big problem is Nolen never allows Filios to truly play Fosca. We hear a lot about Fosca before we see her. The doctors tells Giorgio of Fosca’s fragility and unfortunate ill-treatment by a feckless fortune hunter. To add to all of Fosca’s woes, she is also reported to be homely beyond normal plainness. But when Filios appears, she is far from disfigured, far from ugly. Costumer Rosemarie E, McKelvey swathes her in billows of a mousy brownish-gray fabric make her look as it she was gift wrapped instead of clothed. Her hair is unkempt and unstylish. But her face is pristine and lovely.
Could it be that the politically correct would sneer charges of “lookism” if Filios was made up to be as hideous as we are warned she will be? Filios’s Fosca doesn’t move Giorgio’s heart on first sight. But only because Lapine’s book says she doesn’t. The first exchange between Giorgio and Fosca reveals nothing off-putting, nothing that would fail to charm. That isn’t PASSION. Giorgio has to find Fosca physically revolting even if she is socially diverting. For PASSION to be totally plausible, an imperatively forsaken, impossible to romance Fosca must delusionally think Giorgio can feel for her in exactly the uncontrollably passionate way she yearns for him. Without the tough, hurtful underpinnings, the musical loses much of its pathos, tension, and drama.
The scenes between Giorgio and the doctor (Frank X), and Giorgio and the base commander (Ben Dibble) work well. X provides his meddling doctor with an urgency and with a sense of professional expertise that made people, including Giorgio, serioulsly consider what he said and admire his humanist wisdom. Dibble was all military precision and is especially strong in the scene in which he misconstrues the letter he finds among Fosca’s belongings.
There is a flow and a polish to Nolen’s PASSION that takes it smoothly from its first celebratory scene of amour to the desolation to which Giorgio becomes doomed. Nolen tells the story Sondheim and Lapine present, he just doesn’t give it its full ration of octane. Read the full review >> [Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street] April 21-June 28, 2015; ardentheatre.org.