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.