Monday, April 16, 2007


Somewhat passionless ‘PASSION’ at BECK

Choosing to do a Stephen Sondheim musical, as Beck Center has done in their present selection of ‘PASSION,’ is often an invitation for frustration. Unlike his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II (‘SOUND OF MUSIC,’ ‘OKLAHOMA,’ ‘THE KING AND I’), Sondheim doesn’t write easily singable music. Taking on Sondheim, means taking on complex polyharmonies, angular harmonies and intricate melodies. This means the show has to be cast with excellent voices and supported by a talented full orchestra.

Also, because Sondheim is meticulous in his character descriptions, both in dialogue and lyrics, and creates challenging dramatic roles, the director must also cast for acting talent and physical types.

‘PASSION,’ which is based on Ettore Scola's film ‘PASSIONE D'AMORE,’ is set in Italy in the mid-1800s. The story revolves around Fosca, a physically ugly and psychologically fragile woman, and her obsessive love for Giorgio, a handsome soldier. Giorgio, who loves and is bedding the married Clara, is initially repulsed by Fosca, but is kind to her. The kindness is misconstrued by Fosca, and her obsession becomes compulsive. The result is a play of passion, manipulation and physical and psychological illness.

According to Sondheim, ‘PASSION’ is about "how the force of somebody's feelings for you can crack you open, and how it is the life force in a deadened world."

The book is written by Mansfield, Ohio’s James Lapine. Much like other Sondheim Lapine collaborations (e.g., ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE,’ “INTO THE WOODS’) dialogue is woven into the songs, thus creating an operetta-like vehicle.

‘PASSION’ opened on Broadway in 1994. Like many Sondheim shows, it was critically acclaimed, but failed to find popular appeal. The show ran only 280 performances, making it the shortest-running show ever to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Beck’s production is flawed. Victoria Bussert, the director of Beck’s ‘PASSION,’ has cast some excellent voices. But, unfortunately, some of her performers do not have the physical presence or acting skills to carry out the Sondheim burden. And, in spite of their playing effectively, Nancy Maier’s small orchestra doesn’t create the lush necessities of the music.

On the positive side, though she is much too physically attractive to portray the “ugly” Fosca, Sandra Simon has a glorious voice and acts the role with passion. She is believable in her obsession.

Jared Leal has an excellent singing voice but has neither the physical presence nor the acting skills to develop the complex Giorgio. This appears to be yet another of Bussert’s casting of former or present members of her Baldwin Wallace musical theatre program in non-school productions.

I greatly admire Ms. Bussert for the quality of her program, and the success of her students in the professional theatre world, but her casting of these young people in roles for which they may not be mature enough or suited for, has become a bane for some local theatres with which she has contact. There appears to be a mix-up between her professional and educational life. Leal, for example, played a role in a BW student production of ‘PASSION.’ Therefore, he plays a role when Bussert directs the show at Beck. Sorry, there are many local performers who better fit the role, but may not have been given the opportunity because of the BW pipeline.

Jodi Dominick, another BW graduate, has an excellent singing voice, but does not have the maturity nor the requisite beauty to portray Clara. Much of the supporting cast are also BW students or products.

Is this saying that Bussert should not use BW students and graduates in shows she produces off campus? That’s not what is intended. But, there is a line that should be drawn between the BW educational program and the outside world. They are not one in the same. If Ms. Bussert wants an outlet for her talented students maybe she should reinvent the Berea Summer Theatre and open an equity theatre that would allow her students, supported by local and imported professionals, to gain public exposure and professional experience in an appropriate setting. Many colleges have such summer theatre programs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘PASSION’ continues Beck’s recent reputation for undertaking challenging scripts. Sondheim is not easy to produce. The Beck production, though acceptable, is light on passion, and falls short of being a compelling evening of theatre.