First Nighter: Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine "Passion" Gives Passion a Bad Name

09/23/2010 10:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just because Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine call their 1994 musical Passion, doesn't mean the intermissionless work is about passion. Sondheim and Lapine would like you to think it is. They'd like you to think their adaptation of Ettore Scola's 1981 film Passione d'Amore is about the nature of genuine, deep-seated love and not superficial, silly infatuation.

It isn't, however, what they think or hope. Passion is about something quite different and ultimately highly disturbing. It's a depiction of romantic obsession and the subtly destructive ends to which romantic obsession can lead -- all of it outfitted with somber, totally humorless Sondheim songs, or in many instances songlets, that unintentionally serve as mood depressants.

The true Passion message is confirmed once again in London's Donmar Warehouse revival, where the company's allegiance is akin to the loyalty of Manhattan's Roundabout to the often genius songwriter and his collaborators, Lapine prominent among them. The Donmar's Passion is a perfectly presentable production, dark and brooding set by Christopher Oram, dark and brooding lighting by Neil Austin, dark and brooding sound design by Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine.

It's played perfectly presentably by David Thaxton, Scarlett Strallen, Allan Corduner, Elena Rogers -- whose last outing here was a brilliantly sharp turn as Edith Piaf in the revival of Pam Gems's Piaf -- and six other booming male stalwarts. Nor do very busy director Jamie Lloyd or choreographer Scott Ambler (also represented currently crosstown at the National's Earthquakes in London) fail to keep things moving apace.

But look at the misguided tale the raring-to-go contingent is obligated to convey. In it, seemingly passionate lovers Giorgio (Thaxton) and the married but cheating Clara (Strallen) are pooh-poohed in their supposed ardor by homely and apparently terminally ill Fosca (Rogers). Giorgio, a young soldier, meets Clara at his new post, where the other officers are a raucous lot and don't miss Fosca when she doesn't join them at dinner -- until she does join them, having abruptly set her urgent last sights on the handsome new-comer.

Pursuing Giorgio with the strength of a team of oxen and with the occasional gasping-for-air collapse, Fosca contrives to crack Giorgio's understandable initial resistance -- "It's just some kind of obsession," he rightly observes to her. But over time she even gets him to compose a letter she dictates indicating his interest and provoking her commanding-officer uncle (Corduner) to turn on Giorgio. (This sequence brings to mind the old hit ditty "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," although she's not sitting but feebly lying in bed while he does the scribbling.) At last, Fosca's insistence overcomes Giorgio, who's been abandoned by Clara, and he thoughtlessly realizes the predatory woman represents genuine love.

What's really going on here, as Sondheim's lyrics and Lapine's dialogue broadcast sentiments such as "How quickly pity leads to love" (does it?) and "Love doesn't give a damn about tomorrow" (doesn't it?; it should)? Fosca isn't a woman in love. Taken in by a first husband interested only in her money, she's a jilted woman, who could easily be seen as someone out for revenge on anyone foolish enough to submit to her emotional tyranny. More than anything, she fits the definition of stalker.

Giorgio isn't a man who awakens to the benefits of real love. He's a fellow who, when asked why he joined the army, confesses he was acceding to his father's wishes. In other words, he's an unformed bloke who does what he's told. Smart to avoid Fosca in the early stages of her siege, he weakens under her relentless pursuit. When at last he declares his "passion" for her and his profound appreciation of her "passion" for him, he's not owning up to overpowering amour. He's choosing lamely to become something else entirely -- an enabler. Too bad the play is set in the 19th century, long before support groups have been founded to help people like him grapple with their crippling predicament.

How do Sondheim's usually transporting melodies and lyrics figure in? Not comfortably. Orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick ,echoing his sometimes ominous, sometimes swoony work for Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, the Sondheim contributions deliberately and perversely (in keeping with Fosca's perverse behavior?) avoid anything that smacks of beginnings, middles and endings. He sets a motif, takes it somewhere briefly and then abandons it so that applause, that commercially cheap response, isn't wanted or able to be given. At least one of his efforts, "Loving You," seems to be complete. Barbara Cook, who usually includes it in her Sondheim programs, certainly thinks so.

Curiously enough as Passion unfolds, the determination to prove its point becomes Fosca-like. By the final fade-out, much of the audience, assailed by its adamant misconception, can do nothing but submit to it. All passion to avoid its persistent grasp has been spent.