Stephen Sondheim's Passion has started previewing at the Donmar as part of the Sondheim at 80 season... This dark story about a young officer drawn towards a sick unhealthy woman is less musical and more melodrama set to a lush romantic score, with a bit of crazy thrown. The musical motifs repeat and repeat to a dizzying point and if you let yourself accept the basic premise of the show you're in for a hell of a ride. I have always liked this show in which the central message seems to be long distance relationships don't work, no matter how well written the letters are. Sondheim's music and lyrics are more natural here and grounded in realism, including told through a series of epistolary songs that repeat and alter. And if it this production is this good on the first night, it can only get better.
The show opens with Scarlett Strallen as Clara and David Thaxton as Giorgio in their underwear doing gymnastic gyrations on an unmade bed. Amongst all this they manage to sing the opening number "Happiness". Of course the last time I saw Passion they were naked in this scene so I was a little disappointed with the underwear. Whether it was the choreography or the opening night or the fact that Sondheim has written some rather odd notes for them to sing, the performances at this stage seemed a little hesitant, but this quickly changed and both got better as the show went along...
Waiting for Elena Roger to appear in the main role of Fosca is quite suspenseful. Initially hearing only her screams and moans (it's that sort of show), she arrives onstage after walking behind the set's open doorways, startling both the audience and Giorgio... But she seems such a small and delicate figure - timid and meek - that you feel like you can sit back a little. This changes as dialogue transforms into song and she sings her first song "I read"... There begins the descent into a dark world with one disturbing scene after another. It would be easy to turn this character into a caricature and recent performances of songs from this show have done this. But Roger keeps the role so finely balanced between realism and melodrama that her looks, her screams, her breakdowns are like they are actually happening. And the small space of the Donmar puts you in the front seat of it.
To give anything further away about the show would be to spoil the fun of this gothic musical. It was Webcowgirl's first time watching this show and she felt it was not what she thought it would be as our Audioboo below explains. Meanwhile others in our party commented they were too old for all this melodrama, but they loved it all the same. At times you will want to slap the characters, but once accepting of the melodrama, it's as disturbingly enjoyable as Sweeney Todd. Afterall, isn't being surrounded by people who are just nuts and then gradually accepting that as normal just part of everyday life? It runs until the end of November. Don't miss it.