I'm not going to kid you. The production of Passion I saw last week at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music still wasn't the best damn musical I'd seen in years. Yes, I really thought the production ultimately worked better than the one Broadway saw, but I'm not going to say that if this one had had the chance to play New York, the results would have been any different.
Passion is, after all, atypical, and not the type of "show" (and I use the term loosely) that made any of us fall in love with Broadway musicals. That's why, despite reviews that were mostly respectful and/or appreciative, and plenty of Tonys and other honors, the Sondheim-Lapine musical was never a hot ticket, and limped through 250 performances.
I'm not saying the Cincinnati Conservatory Passion would have fared any better. The show ain't no crowd-pleaser. But director Aubrey Berg found some fascinating aspects that stressed other values, and ultimately -- yes -- came out with a more satisfying and thrilling production.
First off, he had Lisa Howard's marvelous Fosca seem more mentally ill than physically ill. Much of the time, she was rushing around the stage in her pursuit of Giorgio. In the scene where he first entered her room, she jumped up in bed with the excitement and, yes, passion of Maggie the Cat. Making her more of a hypochondriac was an inspired choice, and one that can be substantiated. As Berg said, "I noticed that the times when she comes out with those screams, they were when she wasn't getting her own way."
Wait a minute, you might say, the lady does die at the end of the show, and she had to succumb to something. Well, I'm not saying that Fosca was perfectly healthy, mind you. But people have been known to die for a number of reasons, and I bought that Fosca did, through the combination of physical and emotional illnesses. I liked Jere Shea's Giorgio on Broadway, but seeing Eric Sciotto play the role, I felt that he and Berg were right to make the Captain less sensitive, and far more prone to explosive anger. You can still like books and flowers and be outraged at what this woman is putting you through. When Fosca branded Giorgio cruel, Shea seemed merely astonished; Sciotto added far more fury at being treated so unfairly. He snarled back at her (still while singing magnificently), and we saw much more backbone throughout the performance.
And that only made the healthier Fosca argue right back, a woman who was going to get her man, no matter what. Raising the fury raised the stakes, and what the audience saw then in show called Passion was -- again -- much more passion.
Now the trickiest scene in Passion always was the one in which an ill Giorgio is on the train, ready to leave town, and he looks up and Fosca is standing there. Every time I saw Passion on Broadway, the audience derisively laughed at the sudden sight of her there. Sondheim has been asked about this, and has said in explanation that the audience has the need to laugh to break the tension they've been feeling. Okay, but I wound up seeing Passion at two consecutive Cincinnati performances, and the crowd didn't laugh at this scene either time. The reason? Berg didn't have Fosca suddenly appear at the doorway of the train compartment, but brought her in from the back wall. We could see her rush in, look around, find the train, and get there. The absence of the sudden surprise of seeing her there defused the potential laughter.
One other smart choice here: Berg ordered only one banquette of seats instead of two, so that Fosca didn't sit across from Giorgio, but next to him. This made the confrontation much closer, allowing her to get her hands on the ill captain, his escape from her seemingly impossible. (And by making this decision, Berg also saved his set construction crew from providing a second banquette.)
Even the smallest parts were wonderfully rethought. One example: The Count's Mistress. Sadness was what Julie Lambert played on Broadway when she told Fosca about her husband's notorious past. Here Maggie Anderson was a woman who stomped over to Fosca and couldn't wait to tell her the details in no uncertain terms. Her "You fool!" ripped through the theater. Once again -- more passion in Passion. As for the soldiers, Seth Bowling, Jeffrey Pufahl, Jason Robinson, Stephen Schweickart, and Brad Spencer also seemed to find more in their characters than their Broadway counterparts did. Remember the scene where Francis Ruivivar made the joke about Fosca eating like a sparrow and Gregg Edelman had to take issue with it because he must be loyal to his cousin? There was a bit of a perfunctory feeling at the Plymouth, but you should have seen the tension when Robinson tried to mollify his jest. Spencer stared him down, and you could see his mental wheels turning, making him think, well, I should defend Fosca, but the guy has a point -- but I must defend Fosca. Meanwhile, the other soldiers were marvelous in showing their intent to stay out of it, while still adopting oh-oh-what's coming-now attitudes. A scimitar, not a mere knife, would have been necessary to cut the tension.
Okay, admit it -- you're wondering about the first scene with the nudity. They wouldn't do that in a college production, would they? Well, then you don't know Aubrey Berg, who understands that he must give his kids every experience that they might encounter in the professional world. (Don't forget, CCM is the school that gave us Lee Roy Reams, Faith Prince, Kim Criswell, Jason Graae, and Jim Walton, among dozens of reliable pros.) So yes, Sciotto and Claci Miller (who, incidentally, beautifully sung and portrayed Clara) were in the buff in Scene One. Oh, the kids clutched and carefully positioned their sheets so that the crowd didn't, um, "really see anything," but they did the scene. Bravo and Brava.
So, as great as Berg's contributions were, you can't do the show well if you don't have a cast. And Berg had a cast. To all agents: The seniors will come to town on April 14 to do A Little Bit Off, a musical melange Off-Off-Broadway songs that will showcase their skills. Make a reservation for either the 3 or 6:30 PM show by calling (513) 556-5803. And see if you're not as impressed as I am.
All this led me to a thought during the scene where Fosca implores Giorgio to get onto the bed next to her. (Sciotto, by the way, was excellent in j-u-s-t allowing his body on, hugging the edge with the skill of a Jim Dale walking the tightrope in Barnum.) For the next morning when they awoke and she asked him to draw the curtains because "I want to see the stars before the daylight takes them away," I found myself thinking, I'm glad I got to see the stars-to-be at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before Broadway takes them away.
-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger. You can e-mail him atPFilichia@aol.com