Musical play with music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, based on Ettore Scola’s 1981 film Passion d’Amore, based on the novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti

Clara – Scarlett Strallen
Giorgio – David Thaxton
Colonel Ricci – David Birrell
Lieutenant Torasso / Ludovic – Simon Bailey
Doctor Tambourri – Allan Corduner
Sergeant Lombardi / Mistress – Haydn Oakley
Lieutenant Barri / Fosca’s Mother – Ross Dawes
Major Rizzoli / Fosca’s Father – Tim Morgan
Private Augenti – Iwan Lewis
Fosca – Elena Roger

Orchestra: Alan Williams – piano & musical director; Brian Wright – violin; Robert Spriggs – viola; Nerys Richards – cello; Neil Crossley – flute & clarinet; Lauren Weavers – oboe & cor anglais; Toby Coles – trumpet; Matt Whittington – percussion

Jamie Lloyd – Director
Christopher Oram – Designer
Neil Austin – Lighting Designer
Terry Jardine & Nick Lidster – Sound Designers
Scott Ambler – Choreographer
Poppy Hall – Costume Supervisor

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 22 September, 2010
Venue: Donmar Warehouse, Covent Garden, London

Never one of Sondheim’s greatest hits (it’s the show with the shortest run that still won four Tony Awards), “Passion” does, however, improve with age. It is essentially a chamber piece, even though the original Broadway production in 1994 was at a big, thousand-seater theatre, the Plymouth. The first London production in 1996 was at the Queens, a traditional proscenium arch theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue where it seemed a little distant and uninvolving. For Sondheim’s eightieth-birthday year the Donmar Warehouse presents a revival that is more up-close and personal, but then the Donmar, like the Menier Chocolate Factory or the National’s Cottesloe auditorium, has a habit of improving Sondheim in its tiny space, proving that small can be better. It never failed with other Sondheim shows such as “Assassins”, “Company”, “Merrily We Roll Along”, “Pacific Overtures” and “Into the Woods” and, indeed, the Donmar’s productions of these have been among some of the best of Sondheim’s musicals. Similarly the Menier improved “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Little Night Music” by making them small and the National’s “Sweeney Todd” was one of the most successful when it opened at the Cottesloe.

In some ways the Donmar is a little too intimate for “Passion”. We feel we are intruding on a very private story of obsessional love by a plain getting-on maid for a beautiful young soldier as, against the odds, their relationship grows in intensity. It is probably Sondheim’s most personal project as it is one of very few shows (the other is “Sweeney Todd”) that he himself instigated. He saw the 1981 Italian film “Passion d’Amore” by Ettore Scola and was so taken by the story and it moved him in such a way that it became necessary for him to base a musical on it. The result is a piece that is virtually through-sung that, like “Sweeney Todd”, is almost operatic in conception. There are no titles as such to the ‘songs’ which are more like arias with descriptions such as First Letter, Second Letter, Third Letter and Garden Sequence, or Transition, Trio and Soldiers’ Gossip. The named arias tell the whole story in a brief resumé: ‘Happiness’, ‘I Wish I Could Forget You’, ‘Is This What You Call Love?’, ‘Loving You’ and ‘No One Has Ever Loved Me’.

Contrary to popular opinion Sondheim calls himself a sentimentalist, a quality much in evidence here, for his score for “Passion” is lyrical and romantic, a continuous collage of melodic music that is passionately seductive. The basis of the plot has a sick older woman, Fosca, hounding a young soldier, Giorgio, until he finally realises that what she has to offer is real love and true passion whereas the relationship he has with his beautiful young and married mistress, Clara, is nothing in comparison. People believe they are in love if somebody else responds to them but beauty is a great deceiver so the difficulty comes in finding where true love lies. Perhaps it’s not the easiest subject to get across in a musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber tried in “Aspects of Love” but not totally successfully as he lacked the mellifluous quality of both the words and music found in Sondheim’s piece.

Jamie Lloyd’s production steers through these choppy waters with total confidence, giving enormous credibility to what could have been a run-of-the-mill romance. In Elena Roger the production has a true star. Not playing the part as a crippled old crone but as a rather ordinary woman, she too gives Fosca the chance of credibility and at least some kind of attraction for Giorgio. It begins on a spiritual level when Giorgio lends her some books but as Fosca’s obsession with him grows, it becomes more than friendship and Giorgio eventually also becomes obsessed by her love for him. David Thaxton manages the change from the simplicity of a soldier’s life to a soul almost demented by Fosca’s passion for him with complete sincerity. As Clara Scarlett Strallen is the beauty that divides the relationship between Giorgio and Fosca. All three give their roles a supreme confidence that emerges in the brilliance of their singing.

There is good support from David Birrell as Giorgio’s Colonel, Allan Corduner as Fosca’s doctor and the rest of the small cast who double as various soldiers and other characters. The simple designs are beautifully created by Christopher Oram and Alan Williams’s orchestra bring Sondheim’s lush score to full rhapsodic life. “Passion” seems to have found its true home at last.

  • Passion continues at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2 until 27 November
  • Monday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees Thursday and Saturday at 2.30 p.m.
  • Tickets 0844 871 7624

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