Stephen Sondheims intense Passion at New Helvetia Theatre for the next two weekends combines new and old worlds of musical theater into a demanding but satisfying work of art.
The 90-minute, one-act piece threads different forms together in a mostly sung-through period dramatic musical that feels like a modern chamber opera.
The story and setting originated with the 19th century Italian novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti.
After Sondheim saw a 1981 Italian film directed by Ettore Scola and based on the novel, he immediately wanted to write a musical treatment of the material.
Sondheim created the piece with a book by James Lapine, who also directed the original 1994 Broadway production.
The two men each won Tony Awards for the piece (best book of a musical and best score), and the overall production won the Tony for best musical, though its 280 performances made it the shortest run ever for a Tony-winning musical.
The story remains rooted in its 19th century romantic triangle involving the handsome young soldier Giorgio (Matt Surges) who is having an affair with the alluring Clara (Courtney Glass) before he gets transferred to a remote outpost where he meets the sickly Fosca (Jackie Vanderbeck).
That the wan sickly Fosca could ever compete with the voluptuous Clara in the young soldiers heart and mind seems absurd. Still, the inevitability of the Fosca-Giorgio union gives Passion an insistent underlying pulse amid a mostly cool, brooding exterior.
The story is framed in flashbacks with Giorgio recalling the events, and we first meet him as he tells his lover Clara of his upcoming assignment. Theres little doubt of the depth of emotion between them or the physicality of their relationship.
At his post, Giorgio feels distant from the other officers and casually befriends continually ill Fosca as an act of kindness made out of boredom. Fosca, however desperately, seizes on Giorgio as a lifeline and obsessively manipulates circumstances to bring them together.
Her health vacillates as Giorgio enters into an awkward friendship with her out of a sense of duty, but he rejects the intimacy she desires.
The grandness and romanticism of the feelings on stage are operatic in scope, and Passion treats them as such. The piece doesnt feel like it is comprised of individual songs as much as a series of linked lyrical and melodic motifs.
A moody tone cycles through the rich music and introspective lyrics, matched by the fine singing throughout, particularly Vanderbeck and Glass. While the ensemble is solid and effective, the production can be mesmerizing when its women protagonists command the stage.
Vanderbecks wan, manipulative, black-clad Fosca somehow makes inevitable Giogios capitulation to her obsessiveness.
Glass, by contrast, is a lush, sensual, womanly figure draped in white who also seems undeniable.
The placid, angelic-faced Surges was initially less sure but eventually gained a necessary presence between the two women.
The bold-voiced Brian Watson as Colonel Ricci and the wry Steven Minow as Doctor Tambourri are well-etched in their roles.
The complex musical arrangements were finely rendered by musical director and pianist Graham Sobelman and percussionist Brian Manchen.
Director Connor Mickiewicz skillfully orchestrates this subtly complex, rich work, creating a full and affecting production.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine; directed by Connor Mickiewicz
Stars: * * * 1/2
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays through March 8
Where: New Helvetia Theatre, 108 R St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 469-9850; www.newhelvetia.org
Call The Bees Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.