San Diego, CA---Oft times a Broadway show doesn’t necessarily equal the sum total of its parts. For Stephen Sondheim lovers who can’t seem to get enough of the composer’s not so hummable tunes, “Passion” is an hour and some odd minutes long filled to capacity and carefully constructed musical drama or operetta that more often than not defies reality.
Ion Theatre is producing “Passion” through May 10th, passionately and painstakingly as Kim Strassburger takes the helm. She has been in love with this show for years and her impeccable casting is one indication of her love affair with this Sondheim lesser-produced musical. Both Sandy Campbell and Jason Heil, the star crossed lovers who just about make the story, based on Ettore Scola’s 1981 film Passione de’Amore, surprisingly believable in an odd sort of way.
“Passion” with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park with George”, “Into The Woods”, “Assassins”) opened on Broadway in May of 1994 and closed in January of 1995 making it the shortest-running musical to win the Tony for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Score and Best Performance by a Featured Actor. At best it tallied 8 favorable notices, 5 mixed and 10 negative ones. Richard’s of Times wrote, “… just this side of macabre… you have to appreciate the composers unremitting intelligence”.
It takes place in 19th century Italy and opens with a smoldering love scene between the young soldier Giorgio (Heil) and his married lover Clara (Katie Whalley). Shortly after they come up for air he tells Clara that he is being sent off to Milan.
We next meet up with him in the mess hall in a remote Italian army outpost 1863 along with other fellow soldiers, who throughout, smugly comment on Giorgio’s demeanor and position in the company. Their contempt, if you will, is woven in throughout with Sondheim’s lyrics and of course score. (“Soldiers Gossip” several times repeated by a superb ensemble, some playing more than one part: Bryan Banville, Kevin Burroughs, Andy Collins, Patrick Gates, and Brandon Sherman.)
Outside the mess hall Giorgio hears a piercing scream and shows his concern to his commanding officer, Colonel Ricci (Ruff Yeager) and the company doctor, Dr. Tambourri (Ralph Johnson) who are both in the mess hall with him. The colonel tells Giorgio not to worry that it is just his cousin Fosca (Sandy Campbell) who is sick with what Dr. Tambourri describes as a nervous condition, (she faints at the drop of a hat and looks like death warmed over), one that cannot be medically defined.
Feeling sorry for Fosca Giorgio sends some books to her to pass the time. When she comes into the dining room to thank Giorgio for the books, he is aghast and shocked at her sickly manner; she sets her sights on him and like a viper, digs in and refuses to let go. The nicer he is to her, at the Drs. urging at first, the more she craves him, cajoles him and uses any and all means to force herself on him to make him love her. Hers is a lonely, broken character obsessed with an uncontrollable passion to have Giorgio. And for his part somehow, somewhere in his inner core, he finds himself unable to break away from that hold.
Once again, Ion Theatre Company has managed to pull off another coup. In their tiny, up close and personal space, one continually has the feeling of being drawn into a situation one would rather look at from a distance to really assess the characters. With no room to spare and in such close proximity, one can’t but help notice Campbell’s expressions and intensity. Each time she either huddles on to the stage or assuredly shows up at Heil’s side, she looks so pained, you feel for her.
Aside from the fact that she is so true in her character as the half dying matron, she has the quintessential Sondheim chops making her performance as perfect and believable as one could imagine. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard the two more recognizable tunes (at least to my ears) from the show sung as lovely and heartfelt as I did the night I attended. “Loving You” brought chills to my spine.
The other, (“I Wish I Could Forget You”) sung just as movingly happens when she coaxes him to ‘write a letter’ for her that turns out to be a fantasy of hers from him to her. Of course the letter is but yet another ploy of hers to turn the tables on him. Trust that this is one convoluted story that will leave you shaking your head on the way home.
Jason Heil’s Giorgio is also more than up to the task of Sondheim’s challenging music. As the put upon, flummoxed pursued, to the uncertain pursuer, he changes dramatically through his series of cheerful and longing love letters to his ‘true’ love Clara, to a willingness to abandon her while reading her “Farewell Letter”. At some point he convinces himself that Fosca’s ‘true love’ (“No One Has Ever Loved Me”) is more than he ever realized from Clara. He pulls it off, but it is a stretch!
As the third peg in this love triangle Kate Whalley’s Clara, beautiful as she looks and carries herself in Jeanne Reith’s sumptuous period pieces, manages most of Sondheim’s difficult score, but her voice seemed tired toward the end of the performance I attended.
No one in his right mind would dare argue with Ruff Yeager, who stands well over six feet and commands as much attention as does his Colonel Ricci. That doesn’t even take into account that he has a booming voice to go along with his stature, that is right on target. He’s a force to be reckoned with as he ultimately finds the letter from Giorgio that Fosca tricked him into writing and was none to happy.
Johnson does a fine job of slowly convincing Giorgio to be attentive to Fosca since she is so sickly and kindness from another human being would ease her sick soul.
The changing scenes take place in a dimly lit mess hall, train station, bedroom or garden with lighting designed by Karin Filijan on Claudio Raygoza’s multi purpose set. Musical director Mark Danisovszky’s solo piano accompaniment serves Sondheim’s score well.
“Passion”, Sondheim’s poem of love, passion, desire and power is making its San Diego premiere at the ‘little theatre that could’. Its well worth a trip to Hillcrest to take a glance at this smartly produced show especially with Campbell and Heil in the leads.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through May 10th
Organization: Ion Theatre
Production Type: Musical
Where: 3704 Sixth Ave, Hillcrest
Ticket Prices: $33.00-$39.00