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.