Over the course of his six-decade career, Stephen Sondheim has penned more than his share of musical odes to the hopelessness of love: Company (a toxic bachelor is lost in a sea of seemingly happily married friends); Follies (philandering husbands and bitter wives have it out amid a gaggle of aging showgirls); A Little Night Music (attempted suicide, adultery, and virgin wives convene for a less-than-glamorous weekend in the country); Sunday in the Park With George (tortured artist connects more with his canvas than with his model/muse); Into the Woods (the prince is never as charming as he appears). But the 1994 Tony-winning Best Musical Passion — receiving a beautifully bleak revival at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company through April 7 — may be his gloomiest.
Based on the obscure 1981 Italian film Passione d’Amore, which in turn is based on the even more obscure 1869 Italian novel Fosca, the Beauty and the Beast-like story focuses on a soldier, Giorgio (Ryan Silverman, in a where-did-he-come-from performance). Giorgio is having a torrid affair with the devastatingly attractive, married-to-another Clara (Melissa Errico) — they have rapturous sex on the floor in the opening scene — but also forges an intense connection with Fosca (Judy Kuhn), the terminally ill, regrettably unattractive cousin of his colonel. It’s no spoiler to reveal that neither woman goes galloping off into the sunset with Giorgio; when a show starts with a five-minute song called ”Happiness,” you know it’s only downhill from there.
After a military transfer separates the picture-perfect lovers, Giorgio and Clara pour out their hearts in letters; Fosca pours out her love for Giorgio to his face. Sondheim, meanwhile, pours this excess of emotion into achingly lovely melodies — ”Happiness” and ”I Wish I Could Forget You” are particular standouts — and some of the most haunting lyrics he’s ever penned (Giorgio describing Fosca’s feelings in the confessional ”No One Has Ever Loved Me”: ”love without reason, love without mercy, love without pride or shame; love unconcerned with being returned, no wisdom no judgment, no caution no blame”). The voices couldn’t be better — Errico’s soprano positively glimmers. And the staging by John Doyle, who helmed recent Broadway revivals of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company and the Off Broadway premiere of the composer’s Road Show, is appropriately austere.
And while it seems unfair to quibble about an actor’s appearance, it’s a point of contention in this production. Not that every Fosca needs the Frida Kahlo brows and prominently placed mole that Donna Murphy had in the original Broadway production. Kuhn, however, could use a make-under. She looks pallid and frail, but not quite on the verge of death. So much is made of Fosca’s ”wretchedness,” yet Kuhn looks like all she needs is a sandwich and a spa treatment. Perhaps it’s Fosca’s forthrightness and tendency toward obsession that repulses Giorgio (not to mention all the other men in his regiment). But physical appearance is of utmost importance in Passion — and that’s the ugly truth. B
(Tickets: ClassicStage.org or 212-352-3101)