James Lapine

All for Love

Review of Passion, Yale School of Drama

Third-year director Rory Pelsue’s thesis production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is an extraordinary success. The musical, which has been called “the ugly duckling” of the famed composer’s career, is Romantic to a fault, perhaps, but that’s actually a key strength of the show at the Yale School of Drama. Passion, with its deep commitment to love as an overmastering condition lovers suffer, would be a pointless exercise without sufficient depth of emotion. Pelsue’s three principals—Ben Anderson as the soldier, Giorigo Bachetti; Courtney Jamison as Clara, his lover; and Stephanie Machado as Fosca Ricci, a terminally ill woman who falls in love with Giorgio—are equal to their roles to an impressive degree.

The show belongs to the main trio, supported by a group of soldiers who are generally diverting, especially in their well-choreographed movements, if a little generic. There’s also a set-piece to dramatize some of Fosca’s troubled past, involving a bogus Austrian (Steven Lee Johnson) and Fosca’s naively trusting parents (Lynda Paul, Solon Snider). While in some ways a welcome change of pace, that segment is the least convincing part of the tale. Fosca, beleaguered by bad health, bad skin and a difficult temperament, doesn’t really need a story of being suckered by an evil rake (played by Johnson with sociopathic panache) to elicit our sympathy. And the parents! Less said the better (but for the effects Paul’s voice adds to the finale).

Of the supporting cast, Hudson Oznowicz does a creditable job as meddlesome Dr. Tambourri, a well-meaning dotard who plays unwitting match-maker between Giorgio and Fosca. As Fosca’s doting cousin, Patrick Foley shows conscience enough to pity Fosca, and anger with Giorgio when forced to suspect his favorite’s motives, but generally seems too kind to be a threat. Abubakr Ali distinguishes himself as Lt. Tasso, the most boisterous of the officers, while Patrick Madden and Stephen Cefalu, Jr., add welcome character turns as Private Augenti and Lt. Barri, respectively. John R. Colley is the put-upon cook, Sgt. Lombardi, a minor comic element, and Erron Crawford, as Major Rizzoli, gets a nice solo vocal moment, full of feeling.

Riw Rakkulchon's versatile set consists mostly of a large table, for the dinners that are the main social event of the garrison, that doubles as a bed, for trysts, and triples as a mountain a hiking party scales at one point, and is also a billiard table when needs be. The visuals are stripped down but for Clara’s rich wardrobe, a key expressive element of her character’s arc (Matthew R. Malone, costumes). We see her go from nude in silk sheets with her lover Giorgio, to beguiling undergarments and nightwear to increasingly prim get-ups, some of which boast hoop-skirts able to suggest an unattainable distance in the latter parts of the show. Without resorting to coy behavior or coquetry, Jamison puts across a married woman’s sense of the possibilities a dashing lover offers and of the proprieties by which she might lose him. Jamison’s singing voice is lovely and expressive, full of the sensual world Giorgio is losing as he draws closer to the romantic ruin that is Fosca.

Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Ben Anderson gives the strongest performance of his student career, fully evincing Giorgio’s deep uncertainty as to where his heart lies. Anderson is able to play up some of the comic awkwardness of Giorgio’s position, but when his newfound convictions are on the line, we see a man driven by a force he himself doesn’t fully understand. There are a few moments where we may feel sorry for Giorgio, so fully controlled by feminine influences. Particularly when the trio are singing “Happiness” in Scene 5, we catch a sense of the burden of being someone’s “happiness.” What is remarkable is how equal Anderson’s Giorgio is to the task, realizing that Fosca’s towering passion, for all its weight, is unprecedented and must be honored. He believes and we believe him.

Stephanie Machado, coming fully into her own, makes Fosca a haunting figure, full of bitterness. The fragile lyricism in her labile eyes, we see, captivates Giorgio, despite her lack of the more comely virtues he found with Clara. We might see Fosca as an arch manipulator who uses pity to snare a lover—and there is a wonderfully testy scene between the two when that seems to be the way Giorgio reads her as well—but we keep coming back to what Fosca finds in Giorgio. He has no choice—such is the tug of the ultimate Romance—but to become the hero she sees in him.

Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Sondheim’s score makes that happen for us as well, in its lush but restrained evocation by musical director Jill Brunelle. The use of dialogue in the midst of rhapsody ably heightens these characters, lifting them out of whatever mundane trappings would impede them. When Giorgio hears the “reasonable” love of Clara in a late letter from her, he is driven all the more to the vision Fosca offers: herself transfigured by love.

It is to Machado’s great credit that she is able to manifest the beauty of this dark-hearted heroine and express Fosca’s sad and fierce attachment to life. The role requires Machado to scream, writhe on the floor, burst out in invective and play up to love with a timid insistence. Fosca’s acceptance of death and love in one breath (“to die loved is to have lived”) recalls about two hundred years’ worth of Romantic longing for a gesture that answers the need to make of love a heroic achievement. And it’s still sentimental enough for a Broadway musical! For Giorgio, her love changes the nature of life and death, and that makes Sondheim and Lapine’s Fosca a heroine for the books.

 

Passion
Book by James Lapine
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on the film, Passione d’Amore, directed by Ettore Scola
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Music Director: Jill Brunelle; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Sayantee Sahoo; Stage Manager: Abigail Gandy

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Erika Anclade, Ben Anderson, Stephen Cefalu, Jr., John R. Colley, Erron Crawford, Patrick Foley, Courtney Jamison, Steven Lee Johnson, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Hudson Oznowicz, Lynda Paul, Solon Snider

Musicians: Jill Brunelle, piano, celeste; Kari Hustad, trumpet; Márta Hortobágyi Lambert, viola; Kay Nakazawa, violin; Jordan L. Ross, percussion; Jennifer Schmidt, cello; Noah Stevens-Stein, bass; Emily Duncan Wilson, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Leonardo Ziporyn, oboe, English horn

Yale School of Drama
February 3-9, 2018

Broadway on York with George

Rarely does Broadway come to York Street, but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, the thesis show from YSD directing student Ethan Heard, brings to the University Theater a sense of the “big production.”  Heard’s approach, with Scenic Designer Reid Thompson, makes the most of the huge stage space at the UT, letting props rise and fall, letting the wings remain visible throughout, setting the orchestra at the back of the stage, using a raised, tilted platform as “la grande jatte”—the setting for French painter Georges Seurat’s neo-impressionist masterpiece—and staging the scenes in George’s studio at the footlights. Not only does Heard’s production use stage space in all its variety, it uses painterly space in interesting ways: there are empty canvas frames to let us see George (Mitchell Winter) at work, and hanging sketches to show us what he’s  so busily working on.  When one of the sketches explodes into color thanks to some wonderful work with projections (Nicholas Hussong), the visual panache of the show ratchets up a notch.  All in all, the show is a spectacular, from the care with which the costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) match the figures in Seurat’s painting, to the use of compositional space in arranging the figures, to the effects of color and light (Oliver Watson, Lighting Design) able to suggest the Neo-Impressionist’s approach, to—in Act Two, set in the Eighties—hanging TVs and subtly illuminated canvases, to say nothing of one helluva blue suit.

In the cast, the star of the show is Monique Bernadette Barbee as George’s girlfriend and reluctant model, Dot, and, in Act Two, as Marie, Dot’s daughter who claims George as her father.  Barbee seems simply born to be on a stage, able to find Dot’s roguish nature, her plaintive bid to be George’s main love—she loses out to painting—and her strength in “moving on.”  As Marie, Barbee's delivery of “Children and Art,” hunched in a wheel-chair, is the most affecting segment of Act Two, and her bravura opening song of Act One, “Sunday in the Park with George” is, frankly, a hard act to follow.  The play starts off with its best bit, in other words, and we have to wait awhile before anything as enthralling takes place again.

Along the way, there’s fun with two culture vultures, Jules (Max Roll) and Yvonne (Ashton Heyl), in “No Life,” movement and mood from the entire company in “Gossip” and “Day Off”—Robert Grant handles the physicality of Boatman well, and Marissa Neitling and Mariko Nakasone are chipper and silly as Celeste 1 and Celeste 2—and “Beautiful,” a thoughtful song delivered in a sparkling vocal by a reminiscing Old Lady (Carmen Zilles).  The professional and personal setbacks of George are paralleled to his increasing obsession with his method, and that’s enough to keep the wheels turning within a set that never stays still.

And Act One does deliver a great ending to match the great beginning: the entire Company—and all the tech assistance—is to be commended for making “Sunday” come together.  It’s the sequence in which the pieces of George’s great canvas finally fall into place, and it’s one of those theatrical moments often referred to as a “triumph of the human spirit,” except here it’s actually the triumph of artistic method.  Sunday on the Isle of La Grand Jatte is the painting that showed the full artistic possibilities of Seurat’s method, generally called “pointillism” (after the French word “point” or “dot”), and seeing the composition come together, as George, singing his mantra, moves the quarrelsome and busy-body characters into their defining places, in a burst of color and with the best melody in the play, gives one of those curtains that theater is all about.

The problem is that Sunday in the Park with George has little to offer by way of an Act Two.  Perhaps, in the Eighties, when the play debuted, seeing the Eighties artworld put on stage had a freshly satirical edge, but from our standpoint now, it’s just an excuse to dress up the characters in clothes of yet another “period” (I particularly liked the costumes for George (Winter, as Seurat’s alleged great-grandson), Naomi Elsen (Ashton Heyl, as a stagey video artist), Blair Daniels (Carmen Zilles, as a brittle art critic) Billy Webster (Matt McCollum, in quintessential art connoisseur duds), and Alex (Dan O’Brien, reeking of SoHo).  Indeed, looking the part is pretty much being the part in Act Two, as there is even less in the way of characterization available for these actors.  Again, it’s Barbee, as Marie and Dot, who gets the plum bits, and she delivers; Barbee's rascally Marie upstaging her grandson at his art expo makes her very much Dot's daughter.

As Act One George, Winter does intensity well, making us feel how driven and difficult George can be.  His best song segment is the playful mocking of his models and patrons in the voice of two dogs in “Day Off,” and in duet with Barbee for the quite affecting number “We Do Not Belong Together,” a song that spells out the romantic chasm between the lovers.  In Act Two, Winter and the Company put a lot of energy into “Putting It Together” but there’s something in his manner that makes this George not matter to us.  Ostensibly, the point is to bring present-day George into line with previous century George, but there’s not much pay-off in that happening because there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

As entertainment, the play’s comedy is a bit wan, having to do mostly with hypocritical French bourgeois and stupid American tourists (Matt McCollum and Carly Zien—we could’ve used more of them) of the 19th century, and preening, pretentious art-world aficionados of the 20th.  Even with its clever opening song, “It’s Hot Up Here,” which matches the discomfort of actors forced to remain motionless with figures frozen on a canvas for all time, Act Two is mostly anti-climax.

The YSD production works as an ambitious staging of a bit of Broadway and its pleasures are not to be missed.  Sondheim and Lapine are best at characterizing that sequence of Sundays in the park, and Heard and company are best at putting all the pieces together.  As the song says, “There are worse things.”

 

Sunday in the Park with George Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by James Lapine Directed by Ethan Heard

Musical Director, Conductor, Orchestrator: Daniel Schlosberg; Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan

Yale School of Drama December 14-20, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson