- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

We think of the musical "The Phantom of the Opera" as romantic and passionate, but when you get right down to it, it is a story of an ugly, disfigured man who stalks and kidnaps a beautiful young woman.

Stephen Sondheim takes the beauty and the beast concept to a deeper and creepier level in his gorgeous, grotesque 1994 musical, "Passion," which director Eric Schaeffer has revived with searing forthrightness and emotion.

The musical, based on the novel "Fosca" by Amino Tarchetti and the movie "Passion D'amore" by Ettore Scola, takes place in 1863, in the Romantic era and in one of the world's most romantic countries Italy. It explores the more disturbing aspects of love, but not the kind of love promoted in the movies and on TV with beautiful people rolling around in perfect rhythm to the music, their bodies lightly and artistically beaded with sweat, the lighting just so. This is a dangerous, annihilating, Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton in their heyday kind of union of a sort that sucks the air out the room, destroys everything in its path.

And like comedy, it isn't pretty. Obsession and stalking rarely brings out the best in a person, yet in the case of "Passion" you could make the case that the young soldier Giorgio (Michael Cerveris) was never more alive than when forced to love the wretched Fosca (Judy Kuhn). The power of Fosca's shameless love has changed him irrevocably.

At the close of the musical, Giorgio is a changed man.

Is he better for loving Fosca? What a question. He now has a knowledge, a terrible knowledge. Fosca's love is almost superhuman, almost divine overpowering for mere mortals. This kind of divine love can induce madness.

There is much madness in "Passion," but much beauty as well. Just so audiences don't go tearing up the aisles to call their psychiatrists, Mr. Sondheim imbues the musical with a gorgeous, soaring score that is operatic in its heightened emotions. Songs like "Happiness," "I Read" (which should be the theme song of everyone's personal Lonely Heart's Club), "Loving You" and "No One Has Ever Loved Me" are so saturated with coloration and mood changes that they make many other standard love songs seem like ditties.

As a contrast, Mr. Sondheim also shows the more socially acceptable form of passion in the delicious love affair between Giorgio and Clara (Rebecca Luker), a young married woman. As the musical opens, the pair loll in bed, extolling how good things are between them ("Happiness") and praising each other's beauty.

This is what we like to see in our love scenes attractive people enjoying themselves.

Then, Giorgio is posted to a remote, provincial town in Italy. The two pledge to express their ardor through letters (which are sung as romantic interludes) and the occasional conjugal visit. All is well, and Giorgio starts to fit in with the amiable group of officers that make up a kind of Greek chorus.

That is, until Giorgio meets Fosca, the sickly cousin of Colonel Ricci (John Leslie Wolfe). Fosca is the antithesis of Clara pale, painfully thin, seemingly at death's door. Isolation and loneliness have twisted her Fosca is free of restraint and chronic pain has made her almost feral. As portrayed by Miss Kuhn, she is like a drawing by Edward Gorey set in the middle of a robust Romantic landscape.

Giorgio gallantly offers to lend Fosca some books, not knowing that this small gesture has tipped the scales.

While Giorgio thinks of little else than Clara and her wonderful letters, Fosca falls horrendously in love and I am not saying that because Giorgio is handsome and Fosca is plain. It is because she loves so undecorously, so pitifully and without shame.

Audiences not used to see such gut feelings laughed nervously whenever Miss Kuhn's powerful Fosca went way beyond throwing herself at Giorgio.

That passion has a destructive side shouldn't be startling, but it is a jolt to see something this twisted on the musical stage. With so much roiling emotion, it would make sense to keep things simple and set designer Derek McLane has created an elegant space framed by soaring white shuttered panels. The shutters create either a haven or a prison, depending on the situation. Beds float up from the floor spartan in Fosca's case, a tumble of rich bedclothes for Clara.

Mr. Schaeffer has assembled an outstanding cast for "Passion," a group of singers and actors who appear to deeply understand the show. The soldiers John Leslie Wolfe, Philip Goodwin, Daniel Felton, Bob McDonald, Lawrence Redmond, Michael L. Forrest and Will Gartshore (who doubles as Fosca's scam artist first husband) are in superb voice and supply an earthy element to the nightmarish trajectory of Fosca and Giorgio's love story.

The three leads similarly throw themselves into their roles. Mr. Cerveris makes Giorgio less a handsome dupe and more a sensitive man faced with emotions he didn't know he had. His nimble voice smoothly handles the chaotic mood changes, from liltingly romantic to angry, cruel and confused. Miss Luker, lovely of voice and person, gives Clara a touching vulnerability and practicality. She is one of the musical's few sympathetic characters, and she is a married woman having an affair. But Miss Luker makes Clara very much a product of her times a woman meant to be loved and adored, but not to the point where she loses control of her life and social standing.

And then there is Miss Kuhn's brilliant turn as Fosca.

She gives Fosca an initial coldness and stiffness that is entirely unsympathetic. She is a monster, a needy, greedy monster. Miss Kuhn portrays the outsized emotions of Fosca with unnerving intensity the fact she sings so gloriously keeps you riveted rather than repulsed.

It is disturbing to see passion and love portrayed without guile. We prefer love to be tied up with a bright red bow. We want it to be like the movies no warts, no cellulite, no unseemly emotion. What Mr. Sondheim has done with "Passion" is given us an aspect of love that challenges us and scares us.

It is interesting to wonder why Fosca and the love between her and Giorgio is so disturbing. Is it because she is ugly? Perhaps. In a society valuing beauty and youth over practically everything else, it seems crazy for Giorgio to love Fosca when he can get the luscious Clara.

Is it because Fosca is a woman? Traditionally, stalkers and obsessive lovers are men. And even though it is aberrant behavior, there is something romantic about a man so in love that he would do anything for the object of his affection.

In "Passion," the obsessed lover is a woman. Fosca doesn't take no for an answer, which seems deeply unfeminine. She does not flirt, play games or use cunning to get Giorgio she tells him she loves him, demands love in return, and that's that. Fosca goes around the bend, practically insane, to get her man.

What is viewed as kind of romantic in a man is psychotic in a woman. Women are supposed to be pursued and won, the hunted and not the hunter. The Kennedy Center audience laughing at Fosca reminded me of how everyone cheered when Glenn Close got her due in "Fatal Attraction." Miss Close's character didn't follow the rules, and she pays for it with her life.

So does Fosca, in a way. She is doomed from the start, but in Giorgio she sees an opportunity for a glimpse of life and passion before she dies. Fosca goes for it. Is she selfish? Yes. Does she ruin lives? Absolutely.


WHAT: "Passion" by Stephen Sondheim

WHEN: Running in repertory with "Merrily We Roll Along" and "A Little Night Music" through Aug. 23 WHERE: Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center


PHONE: (202) 467-4600


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