“Loving you is not a choice. It’s who I am.”
Those words are emblazoned on the front of Queen City Theatre Company’s playbill for “Passion.” They come from the lyrics but weren’t on the cover of the cast album or the original Broadway playbill. By highlighting them, director Glenn Griffin challenges us to think about the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical as something beyond a profound depiction of obsessive love.
The story of handsome captain Giorgio and Fosca, sickly cousin of his commanding officer, thus becomes a representation of any love that society would forbid because it seems bizarre or unfathomable. With Amendment One looming on the N.C. ballot Tuesday, you’ll draw your own conclusions.
Griffin writes in a program note about his own obsession with this musical since hearing it 18 years ago. For once, love didn’t make a director blind: This is a local premiere, and Queen City gives us an exceptionally tender rendition of a psychologically tricky show.
Cynthia Farbman Harris is actually too attractive to play Fosca, who is frequently described as ugly or unappealing. (Her name means “gloomy” or “somber” in Italian.) But Harris’ clenched body, trembling voice and febrile attitude make us feel the desperation of a woman who is both physically and emotionally a virgin, and who fixates on the new arrival at a remote Italian Army base in the mid-19th century.
He is Giorgio, a callow but never callous man who has left a married mistress in Milan. Kristian Wedolowski opens his heart completely as Giorgio: He progresses from kindliness toward Fosca to frustration at her ceaseless attention to wonderment than any human being can love another so selflessly. When Giorgio realizes he reciprocates Fosca’s feeling, Wedolowski is flooded with emotion, and the line between character and actor dissolves.
Though Lapine’s book won a Tony – as did Sondheim’s score and the musical itself – the other characters remain sketches. Clara, Giorgio’s mistress, merely serves as a reminder that measured-out love can’t satisfy forever. (Brooke Mize sang attractively but has nothing to play in this part.) The seven other soldiers remain a bland chorus, passing harsh judgment on the leads.
“Passion” is Sondheim’s last acclaimed score and one of his hardest to sing, and it frequently defeats the supporting cast here. (These harmonies require a precision they simply don’t have.) Wedolowski, too, sometimes struggles with notes, but emotion carries him across any gaps. The reduced orchestra plays well, though this little band – half a dozen musicians, including three keyboards – can’t reproduce the full opulence of the score.
The play benefits from the intimacy of Duke Energy Theater: When Fosca begins to break down, there’s no place to look away, and we’re snatched into her fantasy. But as the space is so small, you may wonder why the actors need to be amplified by microphones that occasionally make voices sound boomy. Can’t singers project over a six-piece band in a 170-seat theater any more?