REVIEW WRITTEN BY FRANK BURD
For Digital First Media
There are so many different kinds of lovers of the arts. Some adore poetry. Some can’t get enough opera. Many are addicted to musical theater. And in our time, many are huge fans of Stephen Sondheim, whose show, “Passion,” is now running at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia.
Sondheim is rather unique in the musical theater world in that he can’t be easily categorized. Perhaps all the great artists who evolved over the years, fit that description. One can’t, for example pin down Picasso into a single movement or style as one can with Renoir. I know Sondheim from the likes of “West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music”, and a dozen others. His themes cover a wide range — from an impressionist painting (“Sundays in the Park With George”) to a show about men who sought to assassinate the Presidents of the United States!
“Passion” is a simpler story. Set in a military camp in the Italian Alps in the 1860’s, it is the tale of a soldier, in love with one woman, but who is also the object of the passion of another woman. It begins with the soldier, Giorgio (Ben Michael) and Clara (Jennie Eisenhower) making passionate love and rejoicing in “Happiness,” the opening song, But he is to be transferred to another outpost, where he can only write to his lover while he is prey to the desperate longings of Fosca (Liz Filios), his colonel’s ailing cousin. Sounds like an interesting love triangle. I didn’t find it to be so.
The passion that was promised in the opening scene is left to linger with the only potency, the written exchanges. And the passion that Clara feels for Giorgio comes across as an annoying obsession. In fact, perhaps “Obsession” would have been a better title for the piece.
Arden’s production didn’t ignite the passion either, as each character seemed to be reciting or singing some lovely lyrics, but in an old-fashioned operatic style that never allowed the actors to connect on an emotional level. I wanted to feel it, but all I could do was listen to its words. The three leads do a credible job — Michael’s best came out through his rich voice in some of the Sondheim songs. But Eisenhower seemed to disappear from the story in spite of the songs she sang through her letters.
Director Terry Nolen used some video screens quite effectively in the telling of the tale and the carefully orchestrated moving of the large set walls, was very impressive, but he didn’t help Filios understand the depths of Fosca. What is she about? And why does Giorgio respond as he does. Something was missing. Even the ensemble of other officers seemed rather flat.
“Passion’s” Broadway run in the ’90’s was the shortest ever to win the Tony for Best Musical. The critics seem to have loved it. The audiences didn’t respond as strongly. It’s a difficult piece to present. And if you are a Sondheim devotee, I suspect you will love it. But the almost two hour production, without intermission, was a challenge for me.
IF YOU GO
When: Now through June 28.
Where: Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, 40 N. Second St., Philadelphia.
Info.: For tickets check www.ardentheatre.org or call (215) 922-8900.