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An undiluted 'Passion'

Tim Dang sees a challenge for East West Players in Sondheim's complex tale, a dark musical that has tested casts and audiences alike.

September 07, 2003|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

Romance is dead.

Or, death is romantic.

Either way, the themes of Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" are bleak and complex -- and not exactly crowd-pleasers. Which is why producing artistic director Tim Dang chose the show to open East West Players' 38th season this month. "I thought we could use a good challenge," he says.

In the nine years since its Broadway debut, the musical has tested the skills of its presenters and the intellectual and emotional stamina of its audiences. The score is intriguing but hard to sing and tricky to listen to. The action unfolds through letters, dreams and flashbacks; it's unclear what really is happening or who is a figment of whose imagination.

At "Passion's" volatile center is an unlikely plot: Handsome Giorgio, a 19th century Italian army captain, leaves lovely Clara, his married mistress, for ugly Fosca, the invalid who obsessively pursues him.

"We have a lot to work on," Dang says during a break in rehearsals in late August, "and you haven't even got to the history yet."

When "Passion" opened in 1994, it won four Tonys, and Sondheim and librettist James Lapine were lauded for their artistry and vision. Some reviewers, though, deemed the piece to be unsatisfying or sour, and the public had trouble deciphering the show and accepting Giorgio's change of heart. Even those who sympathized with Fosca found the musical to be a downer, which is no wonder, given its self-fulfilling fatalism.

Things got so dreary that at one performance, when Fosca's death was announced, a playgoer reportedly yelled "Good!" and others applauded.

Recent revivals have been greeted more warmly, in part because the authors made revisions to address some of the early problems. Performers also are learning to illuminate "Passion's" strengths, which helps keep the gloom from overpowering the story and music.

While many companies attempt to cover up the show's stranger idiosyncrasies, Dang, directing the East West production, is embracing them. In fact, because this is the musical's first full staging in Los Angeles, he is taking "a reverential approach" to the original, closely following the author's intentions." Sondheim wanted to create a chamber opera, so the excesses are being treated with an operatic sensibility. "Passion" does not flinch or sugarcoat; it asks a lot of tough questions and presumes the answers aren't always clear.

Instead of trying to tie up loose ends, East West will let the audience find its own way. "Not knowing where you will end up can be very scary," Dang says, "or very exciting."

And then there is the nudity. Ever the contrarian, Sondheim opens his heavily layered show with Clara and Giorgio naked in bed.

Although in many revivals the lovers have remained clothed, Dang says disrobing is a given in his production because of the importance Sondheim placed on the scene. It emphasizes the rawness of lust and the sensual yet cerebral nature of love. It also gives notice that an unsparing and surprising time lies ahead.

Sondheim connection

East West's relationship with Sondheim started in the mid-1970s, when founding artistic director Mako appeared in the Broadway debut of "Pacific Overtures," a Kabuki-inspired look at Commodore Matthew Perry's visit to Japan. The nation's oldest Asian American theater offers one musical a season to meet popular demand and to give actors a chance to sing and dance in parts they normally cannot get. A natural fit, "Pacific Overtures" was produced by the company in 1979 and again 19 years later.

Dang, a thoughtful actor and director, took charge a decade ago. He decided to present Sondheim regularly -- something most smaller stages wouldn't dare attempt because of time, talent and budget constraints. East West, however, has developed a reputation for its deft handling of works by a master of the sophisticated musical. Occasionally, a lyric has been changed to reflect the ethnicity of the cast. ("Flaxen hair" became "raven hair" in "Sweeney Todd.") The Roman farce "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" was set on Easter Island. Otherwise, things have been played straight. "Having Asian Americans performing is enough of a statement," Dang says.

"Passion" will be East West's ninth Sondheim production. Dang became interested in the show in March, while attending a minority theater conference. When a speaker urged directors to attract attention by doing what they do best, "I knew what the answer was for us," he says.

After he returned home, Dang assembled a team to create the dark, seductive production he envisioned: Victoria Petrovich is designing the sets; Jose Lopez the lighting and Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez the costumes.

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