Review of Passion

starring Jacqueline Kim (Lao Ma)

Contributed by Liz Brock

In Los Angeles, both Passion and Assassins
By Terri Roberts

In conventional musical theater, love usually comes in romantic packages, wrapped in soaring declarations of devotion and tied up with happy endings that imply a future full of shining possibilities.

But in a Stephen Sondheim show, love is most often a stark and naked tiling. It's intense, it's complicated, and though there are moments of joy to be found, they often come with a storm cloud lining and a short life span.

No Sondheim show examines both extremes of love—and much of the middle ground—with more fervor than Passion. And the East West Players production that premiered in September, the first complete staging of the Tony-winning 1994 show ever presented in Los Angeles, happily buried itself in every hopeful, hateful moment of it.

Granted, Passion's balance leans more firmly toward the darker side of love. As beautiful Clara (Linda Igarashi, lovely in both voice and form) tells handsome Giorgio (Michael Dalager) during their brief, blissful lovemaking at the top of the show, "Unhappiness can be seductive."

Tim Dang, the Players' artistic director, seized on this prophetic observation, focusing on the loss of hope, both literally and metaphorically. His Fosca, in a magnificent, award-worthy performance by Jacqueline Kim, was a plain-featured woman—not physically ugly, as is commonly portrayed.

Fosca is wasting away for the lack of hope, of beauty, of love to sustain her. Under Dang's clear direction, it was evident that her gaunt, grim appearance, her shudderings and wild screams were the physical manifestations of her belief that no goodness will come to her and she has no real reason to live—that is, until Giorgio arrives and she becomes immediately obsessed with him.

This all became real in the East West Players production. Kim's Fosca, though polite and demure (it is, after all, 1863 Italy), was acutely aware of her own compulsions, and completely unapologetic about it. Her voice trembled when she spoke and on occasion when she sang, but it often grew stronger than her body, seemingly by the sheer force of her desire. With every downcast eye and sharp turn of phrase, Kirn demonstrated that Fosca's hidden strength was that she knew what she had become, that she knew how to make use of her frailties and that she could do so with a strange sort of purity and grace that was, by turns, both breath-taking in its sincerity and irrefutably appalling.

Passion turns on Giorgio's gradual transformation from horrified soldier to a man humbled by "love without reason, mercy, pride or shame." On opening night, the fine-figured Dalager was a little less secure in reaching for some of Giorgio's emotional highs than was Kim in her role, particularly in their ultra-dramatic showdown during a thunderstorm on the bluffs. Otherwise, he was firmly in control of Giorgio's feelings, His shift was, at times, almost too subtle to be detected, but in his ultimate release to Fosca, Dalager crystallized Giorgio's willingness, at last, to love in a fierce new way—if only for one night.

Set designer Victoria Petrovich accented this clingy sense of desperation by wrapping the stage in symbolically twisted, naked branches. They reached up to a second level, where musical director Scott Nagatani and four other musicians brought out all the implications of Sondheim's introspective score using just contrabass, percussion and keyboards.