THEATER REVIEW: “Passion” at ion theatre

When Stephen Sondheim saw the 1981 Italian film “Passione d’Amore,” he reportedly considered making an opera of it, but changed his mind.

Instead, he teamed with James Lapine, who wrote the book for the untraditional musical “Passion,” which won the Best Musical Tony in 1994 – and become the record holder for the shortest run (280 performances) of any Tony winner in that category in the process.

“Passion,” a dark story of loneliness, obsession, illness, manipulation and death, won critic approval but the public did not flock to it, probably because of its darkness and the fact that much of the music sounds more like operatic recitatifs than the expected songs. (Sondheim denies this in the program notes. Judge for yourself.)

The San Diego premiere of “Passion” is onstage through May 10 at ion theatre, capably directed by Kim Strassburger, who shows mastery of the complications this show contains.

The time is 1863. Giorgio (Jason Heil) is a soldier forced to leave his married lover Clara (Katie Whalley) when he is sent to a remote Italian outpost. Here he meets the Colonel (Ruff Yeager), the post physician Dr. Tambourri (Ralph Johnson) and the men (Bryan Banville, Kevin Burroughs, Andy Collins, Patrick Gates, Brandon Sherman).

A sudden piercing scream offstage is Giorgio’s introduction to the colonel’s niece Fosca (Sandy Campbell), a rather unattractive young woman afflicted with a nervous disorder, including a tendency to faint. (Her real problem, of course, is loneliness.) The colonel has undertaken her care.

When Fosca and Giorgio meet, she “mistakes” his kindness for interest, and the story quickly becomes one of obsession, desperation and manipulation.

This show demands a superb Fosca, and I can’t think of anyone who could do it better than Campbell. She is maddeningly consistent, emotionally almost as draining to watch in action as Giorgio must find her to deal with, and the pale makeup and severe pulled-back hair conspire to make her appear almost as unattractive as the script says she is. But she sings like an angel.

Heil is excellent in another demanding role as Giorgio, the man caught between two difficult women. He’s got the voice and the presence to pull off this role, though Lapine does him no favors by giving him an abrupt romantic about-face.

Whalley has a lovely voice and fine musicality, but her Clara seems to lack dramatic heft (for want of a better term). She did not convince me here as completely as she has in others.

No such problem plagues Yeager, whose Colonel Ricci is an utterly convincing portrayal of a man with more responsibility than he wants.

Johnson is also excellent as the post’s doctor, another soldier pulled into Fosca’s vortex for medical reasons.

The corps of soldiers amuse with their recurring marching and gossip sequences.

This is a handsome production, with outstanding costumes by Jeanne Reith and the usual excellent lighting and sound by Karin Filijan and Melanie Chen.

“Passion” is an odd bird in the Sondheim canon – interesting primarily for that reason – and ion gives us as good a production as you’re likely to see.

The details

“Passion” plays through May 10 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee May 10 at 4 pm.

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.

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