Theater UnCorked puts heart, soul into ‘Passion’

Shana Dirik as Fosca and John Cormier Burke as Giorgio in “Passion.” Photo Credit: Gary Ng.

ACTON – The death of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim last November was a body blow to the theater world, even if he had a well-lived life that spanned 91 years.

It also rekindled interest in his vast theatrical canon, even among works not often seen. His musical “Passion” debuted on Broadway in 1994 and won three Tony Awards that year but has not been presented in this area for more than 20 years, perhaps because of a plot that features a complicated, controversial, off-center love triangle that confounded some theatergoers.

Acton-based Theater UnCorked decided to take up the challenge and is presenting  a powerful production of “Passion” through Sunday, May 8 at Campbell Hall at St. Matthew’s Church, 435 Central St., Acton.

Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics to complement James Lapine’s book, based on an obscure 1869 Italian novel called “Fosca” and “Passione d’amore,” its 1981 film adaptation, which asks the question:  Can obsessive love be true love?

The emotional chamber opera takes place in Milan and a remote military outpost in war-torn Italy in 1863 and tells the story of a passionate love affair involving a soldier, his mistress, and the sickly spinster whose obsession with him forces him to reevaluate his beliefs about love.

John Cormier Burke as Giorgio and Janet Pohli as Clara in “Passion.” Photo credit: Gary Ng.

It is a daunting challenge for all involved with Sondheim’s trademark complex rhythms and tempos.

Shana Dirik, Theater UnCorked’s founder and producing artistic director, has taken on the role of Fosca, one of the most difficult in the musical theater canon, requiring her to thread the needle between obsessive love and pure madness.

She does it and then some, internalizing the boiling mass of emotion and creating an unforgettable character, and her vision has the rest of a very strong cast also toeing the mark. Given all that, it ranks among her finest performances.

Sondheim’s music is never easy to sing, but it’s like climbing a mountain. Once you get to the top, there’s no better feeling.

The other two parts of this complicated love triangle are right there with Dirik. John Cormier Burke fits the bill as Giorgio, the handsome young Italian soldier smitten with his beautiful mistress Clara (Janet Pohli), a timeless love that seemingly will extend to the end of time. It is pure love despite its illicit nature, as Clara has both a husband and a son.

They both sing beautifully, passionately, although early on Tim Rose’s sound had trouble getting exactly the right balance with the orchestra.

Suddenly, Giorgio receives orders to leave Milan for headquarters a distance away in a remote village.

There, while enjoying his first meal with his fellow soldiers, the first we hear of Fosca are offstage cries of pain, followed by an explanation from her cousin and protector, Colonel Ricci (Justin Budinoff), that she is a sickly woman and getting worse by the day.

There is an important moment when Giorgio inquires whether Fosca is too ill to have a lover, and he is assured it is not possible; she is much too ill.

Music Director Jeffrey Gage conducts from the piano a lovely quintet of musicians that also includes Lisa Krempskie on the violin, John Bumstead on the cello. Anne Kelton on woodwinds and Moises Carasco on bass.

It no doubt helped the production that all three of the principals and many other members of the cast have previous experience with Sondheim. Dirik has in the past also portrayed another character with obsessive love – Norma Desmond of “Sunset Boulevard”  — who was involved in a love triangle that ended tragically.

There is strong support up and down the cast, from Budinoff as Colonel Ricci, Fosca’s devoted cousin and longtime protector; Joel Hersh as the kindly Dr. Tambourri, who urges Giorgio to visit Fosca and talk with her, believing it is the key to improving her health.

A Greek chorus of soldiers performed by Israel Bloodgood, Norman Dubois, David Leon, Josh Telepman and Anthony Rinaldi take time out from a game of pool or a drink to ruminate about what’s going on between Giorgio and Fosca, and whether Giorgio is playing up to Fosca’s cousin, the Colonel, to secure a promotion.

Events push Giorgio back and forth from the base to Milan and Clara’s arms. Yet slowly, almost imperceptibly, Fosca’s plaintive and passionate pleas have Giorgio questioning his relationship with Clara and asking himself: What is true love?

Director Michelle Aguillon deftly handles her first experience with a Sondheim musical that is both complex and technically challenging.

And while Lapine wrote the book, Sondheim’s lyrics often do the best job of conveying what Fosca feels in her heart, especially when Dirk as Fosca performs the show’s signature tune – “Loving You.”

“I will live and I will die for you,” she tells Giorgio.

Later in the song, she asks the question that is at the heart and soul of “Passion.”

“Would Clara give her life for you? I would. Happily. In the end, you will finally see what’s beautiful about me.”

The Theater UnCorked production of “Passion.” Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine, based on the film “Passione d’Amore” By Ettore Scola. Directed by Michelle Aguillon. In Campbell Hall at St. Matthew’s Church, Acton, through May 8.

The cast of Theater UnCorked’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.” Photo credit: Gary Ng.