03/18/2013 11:31 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

First Nighter: The Woefully Misunderstood Damsels in Distress of Passion and Cinderella

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine insisted on calling their 1994 chamber opera Passion, maybe because they'd adapted it from Ettore Scola's Passione D'Amore. But Passion is a misnomer for the story of painfully plain Fosca, suffering from terminal hysteria, who stalks enlisted man Giorgio in her cousin's far-flung 1863 Italian military cadre until she reduces him to a crawling enabler.

The correct title for the Sondheim-Lapine opus would be Romantic Obsession, and it wouldn't try to ingratiate itself as a depiction of what genuine love is. Passion is anything but a love story. Anyone who actually believes it is had better get himself or herself to a 12-step group. If the musical were set now, that's where the profoundly troubled Fosca would be advised to haul her rear-end.

The reminder that Passion goes so far wrong is prompted by John Doyle's ravishing Classic Stage Company revival, which is an outstanding example of the pathetic fallacy at work. The high quality of the production can have the effect of convincing observers that what they're viewing is actual true love. Indeed, the Sondheim-Lapine opus is its own Fosca making any duped audience member a surrogate Giorgio.

It could be argued that Passion, as presented on the CSC's intimate thrust stage -- with its initial 14-strong cast reduced to 10--is unlikely ever to enjoy a better presentation as both directed and designed by Doyle. The costumes are by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting by Jane Cox and sound by Dan Moses Schreier, a combo Sondheim has favored in the past. (N. B.: The 2010 Donmar Warehouse revival, with Elena Roger as Fosca, also made a strong argument for the work's being ideally offered in a small house.)

Romantic Obsession -- er, Passion -- will certainly never be the occasion of more lush and, granted, passionate singing than it is when performed by Judy Kuhn as the dowdy Fosca, Ryan Silverman as the ultimately hoodwinked Giorgio and the marvelous Melissa Errico as a radiant Clara. Add to them robust-voiced Stephen Bogardus, Tom Nelis, Jeffry Denman and others as the manly, disciplined officers and one sergeant, and sumptuous listening is guaranteed.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this musical -- in which Giorgio's who-to-love dilemma is a spin on Bobby's in Company -- is that it registers as the only one in Sondheim's canon where the melodies cumulatively take precedence for spectators over his lyrics.

You read right. The sounds emanating from the nine-member overhead orchestra (emphasis on strings and reeds) combined with what the singers are producing is at times spell-binding, especially as glowingly led by Rob "Encores! series" Berman.

And again it's as if the orchestrating is aurally a Fosca turning patrons into the enthralled Giorgio. For this achievement, kudos, too, to Jonathan Tunick's redaction of his 1994 orchestrations. (Apparently, Sondheim had his say in the more-fluid-than-originally results.) Incidentally, there are moments when poor pitiful Fosca is lamenting her plight that Tunick's work echoes his underscoring for dissatisfied Sally in Follies.

And now to the lyrics, which are commonly assumed to be the foremost sine qua non of any Sondheim effort. Perhaps the first thing worth mentioning is that -- with the exception of the military men when they're carousing -- he puts his inclination for clever-clever rhyming on hold. Possibly, this is partly to prove he doesn't always have to rhyme.

But rhymes or no rhymes, it's the lyrics he sets on the melancholic melodic lines that carry the burden of his and Lapine's true-love thesis. At the Passion get-go, when Giorgio and Clara are in love-making throes, they repeatedly declare that "I didn't know what love was" and "I thought I knew what love was." When Fosca launches her attack, their impassioned(?) outbursts are, of course, revealed as ironic--Giorgio's and Clara's passion isn't passion at all, we learn, but a pale imitation thereof.

The bigger irony is that it's Sondheim and Lapine suggesting they know what love is who have it all wrong. That may explain why at the musical's fade-out Giorgio is still moping and perplexed -- having learned his beloved Fosca has died (in an easy-out plot development).

By the way, in that opening duet, Clara announces, "How quickly pity turns to love." Outside of the trumped-up example foisted off here, I'd like to know another instance of pity speedily developing into genuine love.


What were they thinking at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization? What were they thinking when they okayed Nicky Silver to rewrite the Boys From Syracuse book and thereby denature it? What were they thinking when they allowed Henry David Hwang to redo the Flower Drum Song libretto and make it cheap and sleazy?

And now -- every bit as bad or worse -- what were they thinking when they said yes to Douglas Carter Beane updating Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella for a first-time stage presentation at the Broadway Theatre?

Have they lost all respect for the men whose names are on the door -- and prominently on the logo of this production? It's safe to assume Rodgers, who disapproved of any fiddling with his work, would have gravely disliked this treatment. More to the point, scrupulous librettist Hammerstein would have been sadly offended. This, despite the inclusion of the charming score (but with additional lyrics by Carter Beane and arranger David Chase), is absolutely not Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.

This Cinderella -- which hews to contemporary cliched thinking that prohibits fairy tale heroines from being anything but outspokenly proactive and in which the abused girl deliberately hands the Prince her glass slipper -- is so ludicrous that the commendable elements of the Mark Brokaw production are overshadowed by the assiduously politically-correct aspects.

Yes, Laura Osnes's Cinderella sings beautifully and dances more and more lightly than any previous Cinderella, but the unfortunate player is required -- when midnight is tolling at the ball -- to inform the prince as she begs to leave the swanky premises that he's totally unaware how badly off his under-class citizens are and he needs to do something about their disgraceful conditions immediately.

Santino Fontana as uncomfortable-with-himself Prince Topher, Harriet Harris as ultimately remorseful(!) stepmother Madame, Victoria Clark as Flying-by-Foy Fairy Godmother Marie, Marla Mindelle as kind(!) stepsister Gabrielle and Peter Bartlett as devious advisor Sebastian acquit themselves well and William Ivey Long's costumes are Tony-worthy -- all of it within Carter Beane's revolting re-imagining. But really, R&H lovers! It's best just to call this misguided enterprise Cinderella -2.0.