Perhaps the sternest musical ever to win the Tony Award, "Passion" (1994) by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim has been described as "humorless" by no less an authority than Sondheim himself. It's a severely reined-in chamber piece, based on Ettore Scola's minor 1981 film "Passione d'Amore." The show treats feverish lovesickness in cool, careful musical terms.
Monday's edition, presented by the Musical Theatre Guild at the Pasadena Playhouse, made an impressive concert-version case for this difficult, flawed but melodically insinuating work.
By design, this tale of a homely, melancholic woman's obsession with a handsome officer gives you the cold creeps--and then makes you question that response. On one level, "Passion" plays like a not entirely convincing wish-fulfillment fantasy: Hunky young officer, Giorgio, learns to see the good in Fosca, the unattractive, emotionally blackmailing woman stuck in a scrubby little Italian military outpost. There's a moment when Giorgio returns Fosca's heretofore-unrequited love, and for some of us that moment doesn't persuade.
Despite that, and despite some surprisingly routine lyrics, Sondheim's music is the supple work of a master. Songs such as "Loving You" slide artfully inside the head of a woman operating with the calm purpose of the potentially insane.
Director Michael Michetti's staging was efficient, as was Steven Smith's vocal direction and Nick DeGregorio's musical direction of the seven-piece band. As the officer, David Engel (very entertaining in the recent Reprise! version of "Bells Are Ringing") hadn't the required vocal heft, and his performance tended toward smarmy gigolo-dom. But he worked well with Eileen Barnett's excellent Fosca. There's a potentially high giggle factor with this role--and the whole show. Subdued but with glints of craziness, Barnett avoided the traps and scored a shrewd victory. Nice work, too, from Teri Bibb (Giorgio's mistress, Clara), Michael Winters (Col. Ricci) and Ira Denmark (the supremely meddlesome doctor).
Greater Los Angeles is plenty big enough to support the Musical Theatre Guild's one-night-only concert stagings of rarely seen musicals, as well as the ongoing semistaged productions of the Reprise! series. Good news for us all.