The least popular of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway shows, “Passion” can be a tough nut to crack. Composed with music virtually throughout but mostly recitative and rarely aria, the work is essentially a chamber-music opera in a single, unrelenting act that unspools its story via a series of letters across an unconventional love triangle. Based on the Italian film “Passione d’amore,” Sondheim gives us an actual experience of obsessive love so vivid that anyone who has had the experience of either being the chaser or the chased can find it unbearably overwhelming. Chicago director Gary Griffin, fresh from his Broadway success with “The Color Purple” (ironically, also a show about a series of letters), brings transparency to the work’s often polyphonic structure by using a second tier for the “offstage” letter writers and recipients, but also quite effectively for the eerie, offstage chorus when needed in some unexpected and powerful moments. Every detail of the show has been rethought in a manner than brings greater clarity and motivation to the proceedings, most notably Ana Gasteyer’s stunning performance as the homely and obsessive Fosca, by far the definitive interpretation of this role thus far. Rather than take a Broadway diva and put a mole or two on her, Gasteyer totally embodies her characterization not only via her appearance—here more plain than ugly—but this is a broken woman in every respect and every desperate syllable she utters and sings reflects that, and yet, there is something shining through underneath attractive enough to warrant interest. But her would-be lover Giorgio (Adam Brazier) is no boring hunk, as he often is, but a flesh and blood person of depth and substance, as is his lover Clara (Kathy Voytko). (As in the Broadway production, the two are naked in the opening scene). If you have any interest in compelling music drama, miss this production at your own peril. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 East Grand, (312)595-5600. This production is now closed.