Friday, November 9, 2007

Stephen Sondheim's Passion

"Was there a moment of silence for Robert Goulet?" asked Randy.

I laughed, but I didn't tell him that morning after non-chalantly reading Goulet's obit, I had surprised myself by shedding a few tears in the middle of my half-remembered rendition of "If Ever I Could Leave You."

I don't think it was this particular man's death that got me so much as the loss of part of a legendary moment - 1960, Julie Andrews playing Guinevere, Richard Burton as Arthur calling his cast-mate's voice that of an angel.

And of course, the musical theater recipe that always puts a lump in my throat: the pathos of the lyrics, the soar of the melody and the tragic context. "We're neither wise nor pure nor good. . . " "But now and then he'll do SOMEthing WONderful . . . " "Oh no, Maria, no! I have a love and it's all that I have. . . " Never fails to start the waterworks.

Yes, you've heard it before. I am a sucker for musicals. My dream of a weekend getaway? Spa? Ski? No - a quick flight to NY, then Clay Aiken in Spamalot and Fantasia in The Color Purple.

Randy's question was funny because he was asking about a show that couldn't be farther from the Vegas glitz of Goulet - Stephen Soundheim's Passion. This dark drama won the 1994 Tony for Best Musical (and Best Book and Best Actress and Best just about everything else possible.)

On Saturday the girls went with Daddy on their first trip to (gulp) Chuck E. Cheese while Passion held me engrossed at the intimate upstairs space of Chicago's Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

The story is set in 19th century northern Italy. Ana Gasteyer stars as the sickly, fretful and unlovely Fosca, who falls obsessively in love with an army officer, who in turn, has given his heart to his beautiful mistress, Clara.

Gasteyer was fearless as the nearly unloveable Fosca and lovely in voice. Fosca is an amazing character - as Gasteyer played her, she is at turns funny, scary, strong and smart, capable of great misjudgment in the name of love and also of recognizing her own folly.

Fosca's rival, Clara, is played beautifully by Kathy Voytko who has a fearless moment of her own at the shockingly erotic opening of the play. I suppose the memory of her perfect naked body is meant to contrast with Fosca's "thin arms" that initially repel Giorgio the officer (Adam Barzier.) But it left me expecting and failing to find more heat between Giorgio and the women who love him. Brazier may have had a fine voice and a nice head of hair, but the love I was feeling by the end of the play was not Giorgio's, but that of the audience for Gasteyer and Voytko.

The beautiful score is more operatic than show-tune. Tunes weave in and out of dialogue seamlessly. The rich and complex book by James Lapine offered similar pleasures to reading a densely good novel by, say, Turgenev. There are lots of chewy ideas - about the place of altruism and selfishness in a relationship, about the difference between love and obsession, about the appeal of escape versus engaging with the world.

Here on stage before me were a few of my favorite things: sentiment, beauty, ideas, narrative. I applauded, passionately.

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