Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sondheim's Passion rewards and frazzles

Life Like Company
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
5th November 2014

Given the fact that a string of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals have hit Melbourne’s stages of late, theatre-goers are getting to know that nothing is ever quite what it seems in a Sondheim world. With a penchant for topsy-turvy storytelling and persistently prodding his audience with many an uncomfortable truth, a Sondheim musical rarely feels like a light affair. Passion dangles disconcertingly at this extreme, presented here in Life Like Company’s fine inaugural production.
Kane Alexander and Theresa Borg

A safe but deft hand in direction by Neil Gooding, musical director Guy Simpson's sensitive interpretation of the score and energetic embrace of the 15 musicians, together with a well-seasoned cast, all combine in a production that both rewards and frazzles.

From Iginio Ugo Tarchetti's 19th Century novel Fosca, to the 1981 Italian film Passione d'armore, the story of a bewilderingly obsessive love of a sick woman for a remotely posted army captain, who in turn is in love with and having an affair with a married woman in Milan, was adapted for the stage with Sondheim's signature biting lyrics (from James Lapine’s book) and melodious though oddly restrained music.

Passion’s stage drama contains forces aplenty that lap the audience unrelentingly.  Shifting scenes regimentally choreographed, intertwined vocal lines originating from different premises of time and place, storytelling within storytelling, repetition of vocal lines and a fluid music intercepted by military reminders of the snare drum and trumpet, march the story along with rhythmic ease.

The multi-tasking creative designer, Rob Sowinski, keeps the lighting subdued but varied while scant furnishings define space and costumes define the period on a raw black-curtained working stage. It's neither elaborate nor overly ambitious but it does work to sharpen the focus on the characters from whom Gooding extracts every ounce he can. The cast of 12, a broad mix of musical theatre talent, is balanced and strong.

Fosca, as fragile as she is, is the story's vortex, and because of whom outcomes spiral. Theresa Borg's Fosca is harrowing as she summons power and gravitas in her voice from a mind and body sucked of life. Stiff in action and gaunt in expression, Borg's disturbing melodies, depth of voice and unswerving performance of an obsessed love press down with a frightening emotional burden.

The man of her obsession, Captain Giorgio Bachetti, is handsomely portrayed by Kane Alexander. After an uneasy, under bedcover and unclothed start, Alexander developed charismatically with a warm and resonant voice, his sensitive obliging nature seemingly at odds with military isolation. You wait for that cordial spirit to break and it finally does in a burst of harsh and confronting words as Fosca follows him on his train to Milan. It is at this point that you come to see and feel Alexander’s full range.

Borg and Alexander build up Fosca and Giorgio's complex chemistry in an aching, frustrating display. The less we understand something, the more disturbing we find it. Love is not what it seems and viewing their relationship makes challenging and effecting theatre.

Polar opposite to Fosca's pitiable, deep melancholy, Silvie Paladino as Giorgio's lover Clara, glides with lithely beauty and stretches the voice high and bright with measured control. It is easy to imagine Paladino as the consummate entertainer but despite a polished performance, the role seems to demand a greater sense of lusty vigour. 

Silvie Paladino and Kane Alexander
The trio is complimented by fine performances from Mark Dickenson as Fosca's cousin and protector, Colonel Ricci, whose robust voice can fire like a cannon, and John O'May as the officious Doctor Tambourri, your somewhat dubious master-of-ceremonies-like-glue guiding proceedings in hardly a singer's role but endearing nonetheless.

Completing the cast is a uniformed regiment of colourful characters whose chorus work coolly take the drama off the boil. Sadly, their choreographed drills stumble, dragging down "military madness" with twee, juvenile marching.

It seems impossible to walk away from this staging of Passion without being completely drained by the drama. That can hardly be poor theatre. It may just require some distance in time from reaching Sondheim saturation. 

Production photographs by Ben Fon

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