An Indication of...
PASSION IN LONDON
by David K. Newell
Well, breaking the run of ecstatic reviews for the London productions of Company and A Little Night Music, I had a lot of problems with this production of Passion at the Queen's Theatre. Even now, after thinking about it for two weeks or so I haven't pinned down if there was one big over-riding problem. It was probably just the combination of the following.
First and foremost is Michael Ball performance as Giorgio. I only know of him from the Aspects of Love recording which a friend taped for me. He has a nice voice (that actually reminded me of the original Giorgio, Jere Shea), but he is absolutely not an actor.
Before I left for my trip I remember a friend using the term "indication" to describe some performance or other. I hadn't heard that term since MY freshman acting classes about 10 years ago. But it was the word that kept popping into my mind while watching Mr. Balls' Giorgio. He wasn't feeling anything, he was just doing physical and/or verbal behavior to indicate emotion. This is a show I have grown to love through the CD, and I believe in Giorgio's transformation. Watching Mr. Ball I didn't buy it for a second.
I can understand why he asked for the "new" song, it makes it easier for him. It is actually a very old song, a reworked version of a song cut in the first week of previews (I saw the 2nd preview). In it Giorgio explains to the *Doctor* how he has fallen in love with Fosca. In the original version he seemed to sing "I love Fosca" over and over, which led me to call it the "I love Fosca" song, and to be very relieved when I heard it was cut.
The new version moves the "love without reason, love without mercy" lyrics back to the discussion with the Doctor and includes only one big "I love Fosca" outburst. But the person behind me chortled when it was sung and I had to agree. It's a way to "explain" the emotion (a la ALW) rather than actually feel and express it directly as is done in the final broadway version. I love that part of the CD where Jere Shea's Giorgio seems almost as scared and shocked to be saying it as Fosca is to hear it. There just wasn't that depth to Mr. Ball or, for that matter, to the entire production.
I also have to say I didn't find him very attractive. The term "pudding-face" kept jumping to my lips whenever I described him. And his vanity about not showing his body in the opening, while wearing a flesh g-string to flash a little buttock, it just silly. I think a recent quote about his Giorgio never letting anything get in the way of a good meal is right on the money. He really looked to be coasting on his supposed "star power", but he's got a long way to go before he commands a stage as well as he thinks he does.
The second thing that occured to me is that the pacing of the production is very fast. It seems to whip along at such a frantic pace that there is no time for anything to sink in. The friend I saw it with knows the score a little from hearing it in friend's cars, homes etc. She is familiar enough with it to know about the "they hear drums, you hear music, as do I" section, and was looking forward to hearing it. It went by so fast she thought they'd cut it!!
This was really inexcusable since they have introduced an interval and didn't have to worry about the audience sitting too long. Although it did fall in a not-too-disruptive place I didn't like the way the interval interrupted the story. But with it the show could have been moving at a more rhapsodic pace and would probably have been much more effective emotionally.
However, I have the sneaky suspicion that the quick pace is their way of dealing with inappropriate audience response. Just get it chugging along so fast that the audience doesn't have time to laugh. Of course the problem is that nobody is pulled into the show either. I could feel, by the end, that the audience was very removed from it all. I can't really explain it (and I obviously can't speak for other performances) but very few people seemed drawn into the romantic web, or moved by the story. The applause at the end was very perfunctory, polite, confirming my impression of a lack of involvement. Even Michael Ball and Maria Friedman didn't get them cranking, except for a few women sitting in the front row who stood for Ms. Friedman.
This is in contrast to New York where, even when I could tell some people weren't buying the story, they were very engaged in it -- either actively loving it or hating it and there was a more enthusiastic response from the audience, especially when it came to Donna Murphy's curtain call. I give great credit to James Lapine as writer AND director for making very subtle changes from the previews to when I saw it again a month after the Tony's. He managed to eliminate almost all the unwanted laughter, often through slight staging changes that were very effective. And, of course, the faultless Paul Gemignani lead the show with great care and finesse. The conductor in London seemed to have a train to catch.
This lack of subtlety was also apparent in the staging. From the opening image (seen through the scrim-like glass conservatory wall) of Giorgio thrusting into Clara and reaching climax during the military drumroll, the entire enterprise was too heavy handed. The quick whooshing of the first scene set into the flys, the soldier's dining table spinning feverishly, the transitional interludes marching along as if on speed, the unimaginatively staged flashback sequence, it was all too blunt, quick and left no room for the audience or performers to breathe and begin to accept the story.
It was interesting to read the director Jeremy Sam's bio in the program. He's rather a "renaissance man" directing, composing, writing, translating. I greatly enjoyed his new translation of Schiller's "Mary Stuart" at the RNT. I wonder, however, if he's spreading himself a little thin and didn't devote as much attention to this show as it deserved.
One particularly glaring mistake was in the staging of Giorgio's reunion with Clara during his first 5-day leave (the "Trio", while Fosca reads his letter). It was staged with Clara in bed and Giorgio waking her up. Now we know she's married and they only meet during the day at their special room. Either they would rendez-vous somewhere else (the train station) and make a bee-line for the room to undress, or she would be waiting there for him to show up. There is no way she would be asleep. The staging made it seem like he'd gone to her house late at night, which NEVER would have happened. A mind-boggling lapse in logic, in my opinion.
I also had a problem with the unit set of a rusted glass conservatory. This didn't make much sense with the dialogue that Giorgio hadn't seen the greenhouse, since it looked like they were in it. Also the very pivotal scene on the bluff where Giorgio sings "Is this what you call love?" and Fosca faints in the rain didn't make much sense since they were still "inside". I think the basic idea wasn't necessarily bad, but to make it a permanent structure (with those odd headers that didn't tie in very well) doesn't work for the whole show.
Now into all this has been placed poor Maria Friedman. I suspect (based on positive things I've heard and read) that her instincts are better than this production shows. Although she does have one very annoying habit of over using the movement of her eyebrows (pushing them up, eyes wide) to convey every emotion from anger to love. This is heightened by her dark eyebrow make-up, but it's obviously her "thing". She even did it at the curtain call to express gratitude. Her Fosca was really bugging me for most of the first act. Of course she's at the mercy of the conductor's baton, so she's zipping through a lot of her music. She also had too much energy for a character supposedly on the brink of constant collapse and death.
Toward the end of the first act it occured to me that her performance is more in keeping with the film "Passione d'Amore" where Fosca is almost vampiric in behavior and appearance. This helped me calm down a little, recognizing some validity to the choice, but I really missed the subtlety and variety of Donna Murphy's performance on Broadway.
Ms. Murphy played it almost passive/aggressive, drawing Giorgio into her web thanks to his caring nature, before occasionally surprising him by lashing out (like grabbing his hand at the dinner table). In contrast, Ms. Friedman was always extroverted, grabbing and needy. I found it hard to believe Giorgio would put up with her, especially given the shallowness of Mr. Ball's characterization. I did find her less a problem in the second act when Fosca becomes physically weaker. And, she did beautifully convey the euphoria of Fosca winning Giorgio's love. Maybe in the first act Ms. Friedman needs to be that forward to get ANYTHING back from the blank Mr. Ball. I wouldn't be surprised.
Helen Hobson was an adequate Clara, nothing really great or bad to say. She lacked the glittering presence of Marin Mazzie in the original, but again that may be due to the staging. In New York, Clara's wanderings through the action had the power of a dream, a spectral vision of love and romance.
One particularly effective moment that had no equal in London was Fosca's entrance down the staircase, her movement upstage from off stage right mirrored by Clara walking the same direction downstage. With Clara and Fosca dressed in complementary (i.e. opposite) pink and green the contrast between them was made carefully and subtley. In London Clara was usually just standing around on the side, and was not costumed beautifully enough to fulfill her place as Giorgio's dream love.
I think this production really brings up the acting-singers vs. singing-actors problem. I am very much in the camp that prefers performers who are great actors first, and perhaps not the greatest singers. Recent performances that I have admired (Adrian Lester's Bobby, Judi Dench's Desiree, Michael Hayden's Billy Bigelow) have made this very clear. If the singing is beautiful but the acting is below standard the show just doesn't hold together, for me.
I had little problem with the supporing players and felt that Hugh Ross' Dr. Tambourri was particularly effective in portraying the mixed motivations of the character.
It was nice to hear the entire score again, even at such a hasty pace. There are moments I really regret weren't recorded. I had forgotten that Fosca sings "God, you are so beautiful" to Giorgio when he visits her room, just as he sang it to Clara. And I've always thought the nightmare (just after the Soldier's Gossip about Giorgio/Fosca on the bluff) is very effective. But at least we'll soon have the video of the Broadway production to fill in those gaps. And maybe the London recording will be more complete.
I was also struck by the stylistic similarities to A Little Night Music, in that both shows features vocal ensembles that weave themes sung by the main characters into the fabric of the show. I always forget that about ALNM since it's never been accurately portrayed on any recordings (a lapse hopefully corrected by the NT disc).
So, this was a disappointing experience. Given my statement about English productions in my review of A Little Night Music, I was genuinely surprised by the lack of complex levels of visual/performance/conceptual thought that was apparent in the other productions I've seen. Particularly in regard to Passion, since it's a work that demands careful thought and strong interpretive commitment.
I've now seen Passion in the theatre three times, and it's never truly "gotten" me. I've been thinking about this a lot in light of Ben Brantley's recent review in the New York Times of the production in Virginia. Maybe he's right that it needs to be played in a very small house. I do know that I adore the score when listening to it at home, and I look forward to some day getting the emotional impact from a live performance that I get for my disc.
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