Review: “Passion”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
When: through April 27
Tickets: $34-$39, dinner $25 extra
Phone: 800-595-4849

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic
 
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 “Passion” is devilishly difficult, so kudos go to Theo Ubique and director Fred Anzevino for giving it a whirl in the appropriately intimate but challenging (from a layout standpoint) No Exit Cafe.

Based on the 1981 film “Passione d’Amore” and I.U. Tarchetti’s novel “Fosca,” the musical is almost entirely sung through, and most of the songs are love letters revealing the emotions of the two women and one man caught in a deeply troubled and troubling triangle that’s driven by obsession as much as passion.

Theo Ubique’s production benefits from talented lead performers and a supporting ensemble in surprisingly strong voice under musical director Kory Danielson, who mans the piano and conducts the very small orchestra with aplomb and a real understanding of Sondheim’s score. It also has an amazing marbled set by Adam Veness that makes ingenious use of limited space with columns that morph into a full-size bed and long table.

When we first see Giorgio, the handsome book-loving soldier at the center of the triangle, he and his mistress Clara, who we later learn is married, are in Milan embracing and extolling their “Happiness.” She is glowing and enraptured as played — and beautifully sung — by Colette Todd, but Peter Oyloe’s Giorgio has a melancholy air that bodes ill from the start. After he’s posted to a remote town, his distress and baleful expression deepen enough that we begin to wonder if the long-distance affair bolstered by their letters would have lasted even without the presence of another woman.

She is Fosca, the homely and sickly cousin of commanding officer, Colonel Ricci (John Leen). She’s been devastatingly disappointed in love, and we hear her wailing even before she appears. She falls in love with Giorgio immediately, and Danni Smith does a convincing job of making her sympathetic, pathetic and more than a little creepy as she throws herself at him, then apologizes, then repeats the humiliating pattern again and again, following him wherever he goes, pushing herself to collapse.

Reluctant to judge a book by its cover, heartened by their mutual love of reading, and spurred on by Fosca’s cousin and her physician, Dr. Tambourri (Peter Vamvakas), Giorgio treats her kindly but then feels smothered by her growing ardor and tries to retreat. Oyloe’s sensitive, relatively passive demeanor serves the character well as he slowly becomes ensnared and finds himself unexpectedly withdrawing from Clara. When he becomes feverishly ill and begins to believe what Fosca tells him — that no one will ever love him like she does — we’re left wondering whether we’re supposed to believe he’s sane or deluded and if love even exists. As always, Sondheim also addresses philosophical questions like the nature of true beauty.

While the acting could use more clarity on some fronts — Colonel Ricci and Dr. Tambourri’s motivations for doing an about face on how Giorgio should behave towards Fosca remain murky — Smith’s Fosca and Todd’s Clara clearly dominate the evening and contrast dramatically with each other.

The soldiers — played by Ryan Armstrong, Sean Knight, Christopher Logan and Anthony Apodaca — provide what little comic relief there is, in songs replete with Sondheim’s typical wit. Sarah Larson and Sarah Simmons round out the cast in the minor women’s roles.

My main reservation about Theo Ubique’s “Passion” is that it lacks any sensuality, an essential component of … well, passion. Still, it’s a commendable effort in almost every other way and well worth seeing, especially if you’re a Sondheim fan.