San Diego Theater Review: PASSION (ion theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on April 28, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


When first I saw Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion on Broadway in 1994, it was clear that this shattering new work was like nothing that had come before. Simultaneously dark, refreshing, provocative, troubling, and profound, the Jason Heil and Katie Whalley in ion theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's PASSION.creative team behind Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods managed to turn an inconceivable and humorless love story into a striking and poignant musical. Now through May 10 only, the San Diego premiere at ion theatre superbly illustrates why this is so.

Set in 1863, Giorgio, a dashing young Italian soldier who is happily in love with his married mistress, Clara, is assigned to a remote regiment away from Milan. Upon his arrival, Fosca, the sickly, reclusive, and unappealing cousin of garrison commander Colonel Ricci, falls in love with Giorgio. Her strange illness manifests itself in bouts of hysterical convulsions and weakness, yet she finds the strength to obsessively, relentlessly, and inappropriately pursue the confident captain. Giorgio is too kind to reject Fosca outright, but his epistolary relationship with Clara allows him to vent—one letter describes Fosca as wretched, suffering, desperate, lonely, embarrassing, and self-pitying.

How’s that for a central character in a musical? Actually, only 3 of 28 segments can be classified as songs, so Passion is more tone poem with lyrics than musical—although given the recitative, some classify it as a chamber opera. Personally, I love how it defies labels. The show is designed to wash over the patron, just as a good Jason Heil and Sandy Campbell in ion theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's PASSION.smoldering gothic story should. In fact, nowhere in the nearly 2 hour, intermissionless run time is the audience given a chance to applaud.

I was immersed in the Broadway production and subsequent revivals, but there was an air of distance in larger houses. This is where the ion production has something in its favor that even the most professional outings lack: intimacy. Director Kim Strassburger utilizes the semi-thrust space, fluidly navigating soldiers, nurses, and the love triangle from bedrooms to a ruined castle to the regiment’s dining room to a train. The 49-seat space actually heightens Fosca’s presence with its claustrophobic confines. Moreover, each of the well-cast 12-member ensemble contributes glorious vocals—some exquisitely so—and the unmiked voices are a treat in this tiny space. While it’s a shame that the audience isn’t treated to Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, musical director Mark Danisovszky’s piano accompaniment is exquisitely sensitive.

Jason Heil and Sandy Campbell in ion theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's PASSION.The three main actors eschew theatricality for an almost wholesome naïveté that is very effective. Both Donna Murphy and Patti LuPone opted for a stark self-realization of their gloomy self, but Sandy Campbell’s Fosca seems deliciously oblivious as to just how trenchant she can be. Campbell captures the roaring hollows of Fosca’s sad soul with her plaintive eyes and mellifluous, smoky, dark-rounded tones. Jason Heil offers a leading man voice to Giorgio, but there is an almost gawky, imprecise innocence from Heil that validates his character’s gullibility and ingenuousness. Katie Whalley’s Clara is delicate and waif-like, making us believe that perhaps it is her youth and not her beauty that is keeping her from knowing a mature love.

Bryan Banville got a few chances to show off his lyrical tenor voice, but his turn as an unctuous rogue from Fosca’s past is just as memorable. Ruff Yeager is quite authentic as the loving and benevolent cousin to Fosca, but a well-rounded character is created by the hint of sadness which arises when Colonel Ricci believes himself forced to defend Fosca’s honor.

Produced by Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, ion’s Passion is rightly devastating and heartbreaking. On the other hand, the combination of a nontraditional love story and the can-do spirit of a crackerjack company are life-affirming.

photos courtesy of ion theatre

ion theatre company
BLKBOX Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue
scheduled to end on May 10, 2014
for tickets, call (619) 600-5020 or visit

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