BWW Review: Sondheim's Emotionally Engaging PASSION Plays RCBC Theatre
Passion keeps us thoroughly invested as the show's characters profess their passion and obsession towards love and being loved in return.
Manila, Philippines - An unconventional love triangle is at the center of James Lapine's and Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical Passion. Set in Italy during the late 19th century, the story has three main protagonists: a handsome young military captain (Giorgio), his thoughtful and gorgeous girlfriend (Clara), and the former's unlikely acquaintance (Fosca). In the current revival of this one-act musical in Manila, director Robbie Guevara manages to pull the right strings, which keep us thoroughly invested as these characters profess their passion and obsession towards love and being loved in return.
The plot is mostly linear. Giorgio (Vien King) is reassigned to another location somewhere in Italy where he resides in a dreary castle owned by his superior officer, Colonel Ricci (Raul Montesa). Aside from the colonel, his cousin, Fosca (Shiela Valderrama-Martinez), who, for many months, has been suffering from an incurable disease also resides in this household. Fueled by sympathy and the doctor's (Lorenz Martinez) unsolicited advice, Giorgio offers his friendship to Fosca. Fosca, on the other hand, easily develops an interest on Giorgio upon realizing that they happen to appreciate similar things (such as books and flowers) and, unlike his fellow officers who only hear the sound of the drums, "they hear music."
But Giorgio is madly in love with a woman, Clara (Jasmine Fitzgerald), who lives in Milan. Undaunted by this news, Fosca pursues her love and passion for Giorgio. Giorgio, however, distances himself from Fosca. As untold secrets are revealed alongside Fosca's steadily declining physical health, Giorgio accepts that he won't be fully happy with Clara's affection and then, ultimately, realizes that "no one has ever loved him" like Fosca.
Being a period piece, the show's creative team is faced with a serious task. Sondheim's oftentimes operatic and almost hymnal score is successfully ingrained into the storytelling, courtesy of the 16-piece orchestra led by musical director Daniel Bartolome. The mood is also a relevant component in the storytelling, which is captured effectively by lighting designer Shakira Villa Symes and sound designer Jojit Tayong. However, we are not that obsessed with Jason Tecson's set design, especially those two dining tables (we prefer one long table just like the original production) and the velvety red drape behind it.
Letter-reading and/or writing is used prominently by Lapine as a storytelling device. Therefore, much of the drama and romance in this musical is spoken or almost-sung rather than acted out, so we appreciate Guevara's uncomplicated staging because it allows the audience to be heavily reliant on Lapine's words or Sondheim's lyrics.
Except for some of the ensemble members who sometimes annoy us by their lack of cadence (they are military men to begin with and not lousy ROTC officers), Guevara carefully guides his actors to fulfill the requirements of each scene. After all, this is a character-driven narrative, which means that the overall outcome is only as good as the capabilities of the lead actors.
As Giorgio and Clara respectively, King and Fitzgerald are enjoying one of the biggest breaks in their musical theater career.
A part-time commercial model and TV talent, King is a surprise choice to play the lead role. Giorgio is written as a very sensitive character and so the challenge for King is to be able to express the emotional journey of his character while still maintaining some level of fortitude. In quite a few scenes, it is evident that King is showing signs of difficulty in getting the right facial expressions. Nevertheless, he still projects many desirable leading man qualities including a modulated singing voice that efficiently maneuvered Sondheim's complex score.
In the case of Fitzgerald, who caught our attention last year when she did a featured role in "Ang Huling El Bimbo," she again captures our attention because of her beautiful smile and equally beautiful singing voice accentuated by lavishly elegant costumes designed by Zenaida Gutierrez.
Another unexpected casting choice is Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, who plays Fosca. For starters, the character is described to be in her late 20s and, second, the quality of her voice may not be suitable for the type of singing required in this show. Under the magical hands of Myrene Santos (hair and makeup designer) and vocal coaching by Venger Marquez, Valderrama-Martinez's transformation as Fosca is one for the books. Although she sometimes overemphasizes her character's physical condition and sometimes switches back to her more natural high-pitched voice, we are still astonished by her profound depiction of a woman who is determined to prove, up to her last breath, that her love for Giorgio is of the truest form. Having been in the industry for 25 years, Valderrama-Martinez's body of work is proof that passion for the arts involves taking risks.
Photos: Oliver Oliveros