Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1994 musical Passion has always been more of a chamber opera than a song-and-dance musical, and that becomes crystal clear while watching John Doyle's haunting, up-close and personal, revival currently playing at the Classic Stage Company. An equally romantic and terrifying exploration of love, Passion is the opposite of a meet-cute rom-com. "Hummable tunes," to quote another Sondheim show, it arguably has a few—but those are besides the point when the wretchedness of human existence is there to be mined. This is the kind of show more likely to wake you up in the middle of the night crying than singing.
On its surface Passion is not very complicated. Based on the Italian movie Passione d'amore (which in turn was based on the novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti) the short one-act piece follows a young soldier, Giorgio (Ryan Silverman), as he is forced to leave Milan for provincial military outpost—which sadly means he must leave his beautiful mistress Clara (Melissa Errico) as well. Once away from Milan Giorgio catches the eye of his Colonel's sickly cousin Fosca (Judy Kuhn), who becomes obsessed with him—much to his dismay. And then? Then things get interesting. We've already said too much, but it is not a mistake that one of the first words in the show are "how quickly pity leads to love."
Passion spends much time talking about the cliches of love and its characters fret that they are or are not stuck in "just another love story." And what makes the show remarkable is how often they are both. While the particulars of these characters are just that, the themes are universal. Which may explain why audiences of the original production had so much trouble with the show—nobody wants to see themselves as forcing their (willing or unwilling) partner's hands.
In the past decade director John Doyle has drawn deserved acclaim for his Broadway revivals of Sondheim's Company and Sweeney Todd, both of which were helped and hampered by the gimmick of having the cast play instruments onstage. In Passion Doyle drops the gimmick and instead thrusts the audience directly into the psyche of its three leads—each of whom make sure their characters are painfully fully fleshed. Simply staged in the round this is an acting class of the highest order, and one which any fan of musical theater should do their best to not miss. Luckily, the show was just extended an extra week through April 14.
And now, I'd like to make a confession: I have a long, weird history with Passion. A die-hard Sondheim fan from age four I begged for my 11th birthday to have my grandparents take me to see the artist's new show. And being good people, my grandparents said sure and took me to see one of the first Passion previews. "We didn't know what we were getting into," my grandmother tells me now, "but you were very adamant." According to family lore, I was the youngest person in the audience by roughly two decades. Needless to say I don't think I understood much of it besides the nudity in the opening scene, which is not repeated in this revival. But it definitely stuck with me (for better or worse depending on who you ask) and the older I get the more I find to admire in the show and its score. Which is to say, I'm not the most non-partial critic here. But when I tell you that this is the kind of show that will haunt you, I know what I'm talking about!