Monday, June 24, 2019


Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)

Juliana Lustenader & John Melis
Two voices intertwine as their beautifully sung notes erotically embrace in an opening song that mirrors the locked eyes, the probing hands, and the lip-to-lip brushes of two lovers singing “Happiness” in duet:
“I’ve never known what love was ...
But now, and now, I do.
It’s what I feel with you, the happiness I feel with you.”

What love really is and what it is not is the exploratory subject of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) 1994, one-act musical, Passion.  The journey to answer that question traverses a path laden with uncontrollable passion to the point of frightening obsession, questions of what is true beauty and what is absolute ugliness, when is illness to be pitied and when to be detested, and what is the boundary between attraction and manipulation when it comes to love.  When these difficult themes are so tightly meshed into the compellingly descriptive lyrics and the emotionally powerful music of Sondheim, Passion becomes a musical that can challenge even the most accomplished of theatrical companies.  Custom Made Theatre Company not only meets the demanding challenges of this chamber musical but once again proves – as it has in the past with such productions as Chess and Man of La Mancha – that on its tiny stage and in its intimate setting, the Company is totally capable of staging a musical that soars in its sheer musicality, emotional impact, and interpretive ingenuity.

In 1863 Italy amidst an afternoon of fervent lovemaking, a strikingly handsome Captain Giorgio Bachetti explains to his beautifully blonde lover, Clara, that he is being transferred to a remote outpost.  They end their opening duet singing erotically of their promised “endless happiness” even as they must now prepare to be separated and through letters, now confine themselves to “make love with our words.”

Juliana Lustenader & John Melis
As Giorgio tries to adjust to life among his crudely joking, drinking fellow officers, his thoughts turn to letters between him and his far-off Clara (a lyrically voiced, sensuously tempting Juliana Lustenader) – letters we hear in longing, lustful duets (“First Letter,” “Second Letter,” etc.) that he replays in his mind (and before our eyes) even as he sits at the mess table.  During one such letter, a blood-curling scream pierces the air, one which causes other soldiers to snicker and sneer while the ranking Colonel Ricci explains to the newcomer Giorgio that it is only his extremely ill cousin, Fosca.  When Giorgio hears that she likes to read, he offers to loan her some of his books – a generous move with consequences he cannot begin to imagine.

John Melis is incredibly magnificent in the role of Giorgio.  He brings richly expressive and evocative vocals that have the capability of displaying in song flaming desire as well as biting disgust, eruptive anger as well as penitent remorse, and vicious intent to hurt feelings as well as genuine desire to heal past hurts.  Equally impressive is the way he employs the most subtle movements– tightly pinched lips, a cocked head, a nervously twitching cheek – to convey an entire script of Giorgio’s inner thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears.  As the story enfolds before us, John Melis calls upon all these and many more avenues to help us to understand the dilemmas and transformations Giorgio will undergo.

John Melis & Heather Orth
The books he sends to the ailing Fosca lead to a meeting between the two that Giorgio totally does not expect but that Fosca orchestrates in order to assert feelings for him that she has had since first glimpsing his arrival from her bedroom window.  Fosca believes through her own and others’ decrees that she is homely and totally unattractive.  However, she senses in Giorgio a person akin to herself, telling him, “They [the other soldiers] hear drums, you hear music, as do I.”  The pale, shawled young woman goes on to assert to the virile man in uniform, “Don’t you see, we’re the same ... we are different [from them].”

As Fosca, Heather Orth gives a performance that is nothing short of stunning.  When she describes in “I Read” to Giorgio why she reads books, her voice hovers softly while trembling in sustained notes, pained and often full of acid bitterness as she describes a life with no dreams of ever being any better than her tortured, present state.  Her upset only increases during a second meeting when in “Garden Sequence” Giorgio sings to Fosca of his love for Clara, who is also seen by us singing snidely and disapprovingly of his continuing to give any time to this plain, sick woman named Fosca that he writes of in his letters.

John Melis & Heather Orth
While Giorgio agrees rather reluctantly to be a friend of Fosca’s, Fosca is unable to confine her own lust and desire for him to just being acquaintances.  Increasingly, Fosca becomes relentless in her oft-awkward, impulsive displays of her pent-up affection.  During scenes where she, Giorgio, and Clara are all on stage together though not in the same physical locations, their sung sequences take on mounting tensions, despairs, confrontations, and accusations.  Through it all and much more to come, Heather Orth’s Fosca is at times a collapsed invalid, an intriguing mystery, an attacking viper, or a ridiculously silly woman lost a dream of love that borders on being a nightmare for both her and for Giorgio.  She is often like an invisible puppet master who pulls strings that somehow compel Giorgio in directions surprising even to her, much less to him.  As the bizarre love triangle intensifies that she has constructed between herself, him, and the absent Clara, Giorgio gathers the inner fortitude to take new control of his own destiny, with effects on both Clara and Fosca and eventually on himself that are life-altering for all.

Micah Watterson, Roy Eikleberry, Max Seijas, Carl Lucania & Zaya Kolia
All these ups, downs, twists, and turns of the rollercoaster ride the three are on together are translated to us via short, sung sequences, amounting to thirty or so Sondheim-signature creations – songs that are sung in various real-time dialogue, written-letter form, and choral interludes.  The last occur often as various soldiers or household staff members emerge to act as a kind of Greek chorus to add to the story’s narration or to provide gossipy views, often ending in a dramatically harmonized “I’ll say” as they surmise, for example, that Giorgio is using the Colonel’s cousin as his ladder to promotion.

Zaya Kolia, Carl Lucania, Kelly Rubinsohn & Heather Orth
Along with Giorgio, Clara, and Fosca, other important players in the drama unfolding include the outpost’s leader and Fosca’s cousin, Colonel Ricci, and the resident physician, Dr. Tambourri.  Jake Gleason is the monocle-wearing, kind-hearted Dr. Tambourri whose caring for his patient, Fosca, leads him to persuade Giorgio to make a night-time, sickbed visit that has huge consequences.  Domonic Tracy plays a cousin who has great sympathy and a highly protective nature when it comes to poor Fosca, singing an impassioned, spirited “Flashback” in which he describes how a diabolical, so-called Austrian Count Ludovic once married Fosca and then drove her family to poverty through his gambling and multiple affairs.  As Colonel/Cousin Ricci sings, scenes are reenacted with Zaya Kolia playing the Count with full cad behaviors and cynical vocals while Carl Lucania and Kelly Rubinsohn are hilarious as the easily duped parents who let visions of Austrian castles cloud their better judgment.

Stuart Bousel astutely directs the one-hour, fifty minute (no intermission) musical with a seamless flow of many over-lapping and oft-parallel scenes.  Against a back wall of blended colors deep in purples and blues that is part of Bernadette Flynn’s flexible, movable set design, Tina Johnson has created an impressive lighting design that reflects a symphony of emotions – one often cacophonous in nature – that plays out on the small stage.  Anton Hedman’s sound design punctuates the air with military drums and announcing bugle blasts as well as the chilling screams of a sick woman.  Kathleen Qui’s costumes range from military formality to Clara’s beautiful gown of rippling folds to Fosca’s draping wraps of a woman ill of health and ill at ease.  Brian Allan Hobbs directs the music of this fine-singing ensemble as well as serves as pianist and conductor of cellist Ami Nashimoto and wind-instrumentalist Sheldon Brown – all three of whom do great justice to the Sondheim score with its swings from mesmerizing love melodies to those of fever-pitched madness.

Custom Made Theatre Company’s personal and up-close Passion is a collage of emotions laid bare for our examination and contemplation – infatuation, lust, jealousy, despair, vexation, ecstasy, to name a few.  Director, cast, and production team have triumphed in staging a musically enrapturing, visually compelling, and dramatically captivating Passion that is a summer-must for all theatregoers, but especially for the hordes of San Francisco’s Sondheim fanatics.

Rating: 5 E

Passion continues through July 20, 2019 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada

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