Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review - "Passion" (Film of the 1994 Producion)

Note: This review contains a major spoiler regarding the conclusion of this show. I personally don't feel it will affect your enjoyment of it, but be warned. More after the jump:

In case I didn't make it clear in my review of "Company" a few weeks back, Stephen Sondheim is a genius: a person responsible for some of the best works of musical theatre (although I've never had the chance to see any of them live apart from a community theatre production of "Sweeney Todd" a few years back) ever created. "Passion", alas, is the first Sondheim work I've seen that must be called a failure. It is to the master composer what "Persona" is to Bergman: a work not without merit, but one far too cold, alienating, and flawed to be considered on the same level as his other achievements.

The fact that "Passion" isn't a complete loss makes it all the more frustrating. There are some terrific songs, among them "Happiness" and an untitled flashback number which tells the sad story of Fosca, a once-happy young woman who at the beginning of the play is overcome by illness and self-pity. Indeed, the score's flaws lie not in its songs (which range from pleasant to genuinely beautiful), but rather in the way they and the show are structured.

Many of the songs are written as letters from soldier Giorgio to his lover, Clara. Sondheim's use of overlapping voices during these scenes is terrific, but the fact that most of the letters aren't all that long means that often the song barely gets going before it stops for some rather tedious dialogue. There are very few extended musical passages, which wouldn't be too bothersome if the story was any good. And as I'm sure you've already guessed, that's not the case.

The story is in fact rather terrible. It follows a love triangle of sorts between Giorgio, Clara, and Fosca. The last of these three characters is perhaps the most irritating character I've ever seen in a stage musical. Yes, her life has been disappointing. But the way she follows Giorgio around in an attempt to gain his love is too annoying to allow for much sympathy. And it's hard to believe Giorgio would put up with it initially, to say nothing of the suspension of disbelief required when he professes his love for Fosca during the show's climax. It also doesn't help matters that actors Donna Murphy and Jere Shea have no chemistry whatsoever. Neither do Shea and Marin Mazzie (who plays Clara), although all three actors are solid enough on their own and have excellent voices.

None of the play's other elements work, either. The sequences involving the military (designed mostly as framing devices to help tell the love story) are perhaps even worse. The way the plot unfolds at times strains credulity, and not once is there anything moving or profound about it. Tony voters clearly disagreed, as the show won awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Actress in a Musical (Donna Murphy).

There's really not much more to say, other than that one fairly lackluster work such as this does little to damage my opinion of Sondheim. And any musical that can deliver a song such as "Happiness" can't be considered a complete loss. But my advice is to skip the film, check out the cast recording at a library, and give that song (and maybe a few others) a listen. Don't spend 114 minutes of your life on this rather boring piece.

Grade: C


  1. I think it's best to approach Passion as an extended song - rather than separate songs (that's why there are so few song names) and you get a better idea of what is intended.

    It's interesting to note that if the plot strains credulity it is based on Igino Tarchetti's novel, which is in itself an autobiographical piece - he had an affair with his commanding officer's cousin, who amongst other things was a neurotic epileptic.

    I would, however, add that I was never a fan of this production - which I found pedestrian and vastly miscast with very wooden actors - Marin Mazzie is an exception. The concert version isn't a lot better - Lupone is Lupone.

    Such a pity that the devastating Donmar version was not captured. Realigning the balance of the central trio, it had a very strong Giorgio, David Thaxton, who could not only sing but was a strong and believable soldier, crumbling emotionally in front of one's eyes and Elena Roger - a tiny bird like character, made her character quite believable, rather than the Gothic horror of Lupone and Murphy.

  2. Rick, thanks for your comment. It is entirely possible that this was just a lackluster production, and I will be more than happy to give it another shot if there's ever a production in my area or else another filmed version at some point.

    But here's the thing: I didn't find the actors wooden at all. I thought all three lead performers were pretty strong, although I agree that Mazzie was the best. Nor did I mind the score, which is indeed quite beautiful (at least in places). My problem lies with the story and characterizations, which are average at best and terrible at worst. The fact that they're based on fact doesn't change that. "Sunday in the Park with George" is a far superior example of a musical based on real-life events, although truthfully it too dragged a bit in the non-musical scenes.

    Again, all of this is just based on the one production. But I really can't imagine this show getting much better no matter what. And this is coming from someone who has liked or loved everything else Sondheim's done (though I still have to check out "Follies", "Assassins" as well as a few of his other lesser-known works like "Anyone Can Whistle").

  3. If you get the chance to see an intimate performance of it - I think it works best like that. The Donmar version also tightened up the book - which for me was a huge improvement.But I would say this video recording is a very flat version of a show that can excite and move. Here's a link to a review, which mirrors very much my reaction to the Donmar version:

    It's been a pleasure sharing views.