NEW YORK - To say that love hurts in Passion, the 1994 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical now being revived off-Broadway by Classic Stage Company (* * * ½ stars), would be a vast understatement.
In one exquisite number, I Wish I Could Forget You, a frail, homely, lonely woman named Fosca dictates a letter - one of numerous sung correspondences in the show - to Giorgio, a dashing young soldier who has unwittingly become the object of her obsession. Revealing her feelings as she wishes him to recognize them, she describes "a love as pure as breath/As permanent as death/Implacable as stone/A love that like a knife/Has cut into a life/I wanted left alone."
In Passion, you see, romantic longing is inextricably linked with suffering, remorse and, yes, death. "I'm so happy/I'm afraid I'll die," sings Clara, Giorgio's beautiful, healthy, married mistress, at the beginning, as they make love. At the same time, l'amour can be a revitalizing, life-sustaining force, as Fosca acknowledges in the finale: "Strange, how merely feeling loved/You see things clearly/Things I feared/Like the world itself/I now love dearly."
What happens between Fosca, Giorgio and Clara that leads to this revelation may require a particularly hearty suspension of disbelief. But this musical, which Sondheim and Lapine based on the Italian film Passione D'Amore, gets its unsettling allure by appealing both to our ability to idealize human connection and our capacity for fearing it. And this haunting new production, which opened Thursday, gets that balance pretty much just right.
Directed by John Doyle, whose stripped-down stagings of Sondheim classics such as Sweeney Todd and Company have won wide praise, this Passion makes use of CSC's cozy venue to create a harrowing sense of intimacy. When Fosca, played by the excellent Judy Kuhn, throws herself at Giorgio - rising actor Ryan Silverman, in what should be a starmaking performance - it is literally impossible to look away to avoid her desperation and repressed shame.
Likewise, when Giorgio is with Clara, played by the enchanting Melissa Errico - or, later, with Fosca, as his feelings for her evolve in unexpected and disturbing ways - you feel their emotional and sensual rapport to an extent that borders on voyeurism.
There are a few hokey moments as well, as Doyle has his three leads and the actors cast as Giorgio's military colleagues march on and offstage, getting right up in our faces and then drifting away like ghosts. But since it's hard to overplay the intensity of these characters' feelings - even those of the other soldiers, who come to resent Giorgio's growing closeness to Fosca, their colonel's cousin - little seems forced.
Certainly, it's hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Passion. Kuhn and Errico possess two of the most mellifluous voices in musical theater, and it's a treat to hear them in roles that showcase their resonance and grace. But the real revelation is Silverman, whose robust bari-tenor is matched by a forceful but sensitive presence that bodes well for his future as a leading man.
He'd be lucky to land those parts in productions that burn as fiercely and linger as richly as this Passion.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)