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Review: PASSION at Custom Made Theatre Co. Presents a Chamber Version of the Sondheim & Lapine Classic

Review: PASSION at Custom Made Theatre Co. Presents a Chamber Version of the Sondheim & Lapine Classic
Clara (Juliana Lustenader) & Giorgio (John Melis) rhapsodize

Watching Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine's "Passion" recently at San Francisco's Custom Made Theatre reminded me what a difficult show it is to pull off. Although it contains several of the most rapturous songs Sondheim has ever composed, there is an underlying earnestness that can be unsettling to a post-modern audience inured to a world that is constantly commenting on itself. When the leading lady sings the plainspoken lyrics "Loving you is not a choice, it's who I am" she means it with all her heart and soul. Unusually for a Sondheim score, she doesn't follow that up with a complicated rhyme or self-lacerating zinger. Nope, this show is thrillingly about nothing more nor less than the nature of true love. Given the sincerity of its creators' intentions, oh how I would love to report that Custom Made knocks this one out of the park, but alas, I cannot.

The story "Passion" tells is quite simple, if a bit unorthodox. Set in Italy in 1863, handsome army captain Giorgio appears to be deeply in love with Clara, his beautiful Milanese lover. When Giorgio is reassigned to a remote outpost in the mountains, he finds life there and his new compatriots unbearably dull and provincial. At his colonel's urging, he initiates a turbulent friendship with said colonel's sickly, volatile cousin, Fosca. They initially form a tenuous bond over a shared love of literature, and Fosca becomes quickly obsessed with Giorgio, forcing him into a series of increasingly uncomfortable and inappropriate encounters. Giorgio, initially repulsed, comes to explore whether he could be genuinely in love with the homely, difficult Fosca and questions his seemingly ideal relationship with Clara.

Tightly focused on the 3 main characters, and with just 9 other actors playing a variety of smaller roles, "Passion" would seem to be an ideal candidate for the kind of intimate chamber production that is Custom Made's stock in trade. Unfortunately, this production seems misguided from the start. The show opens with what should be a ravishing duet between Giorgio and Clara reveling in their erotic connection and physical beauty. The scene here, however, is awkwardly staged by director Stuart Bousel, with little sense of sex or passion. It doesn't help matters that the leading man is costumed in a drab, beltless robe that he awkwardly struggles to maneuver. Instead of a scene of sensual abandon and pure joy, what we are presented with is two very careful actors struggling to navigate Sondheim's gorgeous melodies while evincing a chaste, respectful hesitance with each other. In a show like "Passion", if we don't feel the heat from the beginning, the rest of the show simply doesn't resonate as it should. Giorgio's gradual spiritual growth fails to convince, and the denouement is robbed of its power to deeply move us.

The design credits are also more miss than hit. Scenic designer Bernadette Flynn's impressionistic, Italianate mountainscape provides a lovely backdrop, but the incessant, fussy moving on- and offstage of chairs and tables quickly becomes monotonous and distracting. Costume designer Kathleen Qui supplies a parade of largely unflattering and ill-fitting costumes. Cases in point: Clara's elaborate, cumbersome wig that threatens to devour the actress playing her, and Fosca's succession of shapeless and colorless dresses. Yes, Fosca is hardly a fashion-plate, but why would she wear garments that look like amorphous potato sacks? Both Tina Johnson's lighting and the actors' microphones appeared to switch on and off at random moments. And while I'm mentioning the sound, why of why couldn't this production have been presented unmiked? In a tiny 99-seat theater, there is no reason that the actors could not have been easily heard without electronic enhancement. Just think of how much more intimate the show would be if the sound came directly from the actors' mouths instead of emanating from disparate locations.

Review: PASSION at Custom Made Theatre Co. Presents a Chamber Version of the Sondheim & Lapine Classic
Fosca (Heather Orth) dictates a letter to Giorgio (John Melis) from her sickbed

As to the performances, the women generally faired better than the men. John Melis as Giorgio certainly looked the part and has a lovely tenor. That said, his vocal production was maddeningly inconsistent as he sometimes struggled unsuccessfully to hit his higher notes, and his stage demeanor was generally wooden and one-note. Juliana Lustenader sang capably as Clara, even if she never seemed fully committed to embodying the sensuality of her character. Amy Alvino and Kelly Rubinsohn in supporting female roles both sang beautifully and provided deft character touches in their brief featured moments.

The undeniably shining highlight of this production is Heather Orth's Fosca. The role sits perfectly in Ms. Orth's vocal range, and she is able to color and phrase each line to clearly convey both text and subtext. Her Fosca is a complicated woman who is all exposed nerve endings and too lacking in social graces or filters to ever be at home in her world. She creates a portrait of a woman who is keenly intelligent, maddeningly obsessive and heart-rending all at once. A character of this depth and complexity is thrilling to encounter, and Ms. Orth masterfully rises to the occasion. Indeed, she provides the searing passion that this production is otherwise too often lacking.

Photos by Jay Yamada

The Custom Made Theatre Co.'s production of "Passion" runs through July 20th at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 9102. Tickets and further information are available at or by calling 415-782-2682.

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