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'Passion' a Rare Misstep From Two Masters


"Passion," airing on KCET-TV Channel 28 Sunday, duplicates the experience of seeing the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical onstage. Oh well.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this 1994 work is watching two brilliant theater artists load up a sinking ship. Given the talents of the creators, there can be no question that "Passion" is technically an accomplished piece. But their telling of the story (adapted from Ettore Scola's film "Passione D'Amore") suffers from emotional immaturity, combined badly with acute romanticism. It's a disastrous combination.

The setting is a remote army outpost in Italy, 1863. Aside from servants, only one woman lives among the officers--the tragic heroine Fosca (Donna Murphy), wretched cousin to Col. Ricci (Gregg Edelman). Fosca is not only unattractive (Murphy does her impression of a ferret, squinting), she also suffers from a terrible unnamed malady. "Her nerves are exposed while ours are protected by a firm layer of skin," explains the doctor, soberly.

She falls instantly in love with a handsome new officer named Giorgio (Jere Shea). Her opening line to him is snappy: "I've been going though a period of deep melancholy." Soon she graduates to even more enticing confessions such as, "These past three days have been the most painful of my life."

She faints when someone mentions death. She faints when Giorgio yells at her for stalking him. The pompous doctor (Tom Aldredge), who must be the most inept man in the history of neur-asthenia, tells Giorgio that Fosca's unspecified malady has made her "mortally ill." The exacting medical prognosis: "She's dying. You have only to give her words--words that will make her well."

Well, sure, if you put it that way. Giorgio is obliged to pretend to return Fosca's smothering affection. And of course he learns something unexpected about love in the process.

Creator of many of the smartest, wittiest and most complex musicals ever written, Sondheim has never struck so many false notes as he does here. It's disheartening for any musical fan to learn that when he tries to embrace emotion without a cynical overgloss, there is so little there.

Instead of the usual pleasure of unraveling his complicated lyrics, we get sloganeering in "Passion." "Beauty is power / Longing a disease." That kind of thing. His music, though, is lovely; it sometimes sounds like one long elliptical, haunting melody that wends its way though the story, to its absurd conclusion.

Looking like the young Ryan O'Neal, Shea is stalwart as Giorgio and sings well. Marin Mazzie stands out as the beautiful married mistress whom Giorgio leaves behind in Milan. For the role of Fosca, the normally lovely Murphy won a Tony, and one can only consider it an award for valor in the face of extreme pretension.

* "Passion" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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