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Passion Flower

FPCT Lavishes Love on Sondheim's Musical

Jeff Rasmussen and Darren McDonnell in Fells Point Corner Theatre's Passion

By Jack Purdy | Posted 5/9/2001


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine

Arguably the first musical about the beauty of stalking, Passion demonstrates that, as he ages, Stephen Sondheim remains the perfect combination of world-weary cynic and romantically loopy teenager. The production at Fells Point Corner Theatre (FPCT) captures the composer's contradictory impulses perfectly. This was, quite frankly, a startlingly ambitious work for the FPCT to mount, with a demanding and extensive score, an exotic setting (mid-19th-century Italy), a large cast (17 performers), and numerous scenes, all of which had to be replicated within the confines of a single set. On every count, director Bill Kamberger, his cast, and set designer Carol Oles succeed brilliantly. There won't be a more impressive or sophisticated piece of musical theater mounted in Baltimore this year for certain--or perhaps for years to come.

The book, by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, is drawn from both the florid novel Fosca by I.U. Tarchetti and the film Passione d'Amore by writer/director Etorre Scola. It's a typical piece of 19th-century European romantic hooha, about an emotionally deranged older woman named Fosca (Amy Jo Shapiro) who becomes obsessed (to put it mildly) with a handsome young army captain, Giorgio (Jeff Rasmussen), who is himself deliriously in love with a married Milanese woman, Clara (Patricia Coleman). That Fosca is the cousin of Giorgio's commanding officer, Col. Ricci (Darren McDonnell), makes matters even more complicated, especially after Giorgio learns the pathetic story of Fosca's life to date, how she was wedded to and conned by a spurious Austrian count (Gary Hiel).

Fosca, in short, is a woman who has never known happiness, and the good-hearted Giorgio, even though he rejects her again and again, slowly finds himself more and more drawn to the woman, as he comes to realize that having someone totally committed to you emotionally is a rare and wondrous thing, especially when that person's life has been utterly miserable beforehand. Witnessing and commenting on this strange pairing are a quintet of Giorgio's comrades-in-arms (Jesse Tallyen, Richard Goldberg, Todd Krickler, Rich Espey, and Byron Fenstermaker)--who, in one of Sondheim's more droll touches, frequently end their comments on the action with a pithy "I'll say" delivered in barbershop harmony.

Although there are a few times when ensemble singing goes flat, the individual vocal work is secure. Coleman's pure soprano, in particular, is well suited to Sondheim's music, while Shapiro's rounder, darker tones give life to Fosca's torment. (It's obvious from Lapine's book that Fosca is meant to be downright ugly. And in an effort to make the attractive Shapiro haggish, someone went overboard with eye makeup, creating a racoonlike effect. It's the only truly off-kilter thing in the show.)

As superb as the production is, it should be stressed that late-period Sondheim (Passion debuted on Broadway in 1994) is not for everyone. For those to whom the word "musical" still means memorable tunes you'll hum as you leave the theater, there's not a single hummable melody here--no "Send In the Clowns" or "No One Is Alone." It's as if the composer stripped his inventory of notes down to a minimum, then arranged them in the most vocally challenging way possible. Those seeking facile anthems had better wait for the next time Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera plays the Lyric.

But then, anthemic melodies aren't suited to the hopeful bitterness of Passion, best summed up with Fosca's exhilarating declaration: "Now that I've been loved, I don't want to live."

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