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'Passion' review: Lush Sondheim revival

Judy Kuhn and Ryan Silverman in a scene

Judy Kuhn and Ryan Silverman in a scene from the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, "Passion," performing off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan. Photo Credit: AP

Director John Doyle's revival of "Passion" at the 199-seat Classic Stage Company is glorious -- intimate, rapturous, ravishingly performed, stark yet gorgeous-looking.

All this doesn't change the uneasy sense that the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine 1994 Tony winner -- Sondheim's most unabashed musical love story -- is not an easy show to love.

The chamber musical, based on an 1869 Italian novel (and a 1981 film), is an intense, high-toned romantic soaper about Fosca (Judy Kuhn), a plain, hysterical, sickly woman whose obsessive love lures a handsome soldier named Giorgio (Ryan Silverman) away from his beautiful married lover, Clara (Melissa Errico).

We are meant, I think, to see this as a 19th century "Beauty and the Beast" for grown-ups. Instead, it still feels more like a stalker-revenge fantasy, an overripe bodice-ripper in which the crazy-manipulative creature triumphs over the sane woman who won't abandon her child for love.

And yet . . .

Despite the icky overtones of the plot, this is riveting theater. Think of it as a short story with tight, almost continuous, often luscious songs. With a splendid cast and the audience up close and very personal within the tiny three-sided space, we get swept up in the drama, in the angular, constricted vocal lines, the tensions between oversized emotions and the restrictions of the society.

Doyle and Kuhn have softened the most monstrous elements of Fosca, who seemed more like a crone in Donna Murphy's stunning original. Kuhn, with her shimmering copper voice, is still a dangerously needy and self-pitying Fosca. But she seems more ill than truly scary in this deeply felt portrayal, which makes her triumph seem just a bit less pathological.

Silverman makes a sympathetic hero and Errico is a golden puddle of taffeta, cascading curls and cleavage. Their love duets are a Sondheim rarity -- voices in unison.

With a 10-piece orchestra nestled high in an alcove, we are pushed and pulled by the unbridled, unrelenting music with its rich underscoring. This is surely Sondheim's most thematically unified score. He begins with military drums, a haunting sound that reappears between scenes, often with the chorus of officers repeating bits of character leitmotifs. The soldiers also offer moments of comic relief. With all this poetic and unsettling sobriety, the emphasis is on the relief.

WHAT "Passion"

WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., Manhattan

INFO $60-$125; 212-352-3101;

BOTTOM LINE Riveting intimacy, but still hard to love

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