Guest review: ‘Passion’ at Donmar Warehouse

Yes, I know this is “Chicago Theatre Addict,” but good theatre is good theatre, and I am all about sharing news of a fabulous production when I hear of one (especially when it’s a Sondheim piece). My friend Ali, whom I met at Northwestern in grad school, now lives in Bahrain and travels to the West End several times a year to catch shows. He’s been raving about the Donmar’s current production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, and I told him to write a review, and I’d post it here. So, if you’re traveling to London any time soon (show closes Nov. 27), catch Passion. (Just be on guard for the gun shots.)

Ali’s review at the jump:

I had the pleasure of getting a last minute ticket to the Donmar Warehouses’s production of Passion, as part of a series of Stephen Sondheim’s works that are presented to celebrate the great American composer’s 80th birthday.

The Donmar is known to mount some wonderful little shows with very ambitious direction and production values that become big hits, sometimes transferring to the West End or even Broadway (Cabaret, Hamlet and Red are a few examples). Naturally, I was excited to see this production of Passion because a) it’s one of my favorite Sondheim scores; b) it was  the first time I’ve ever seen a Sondheim show live; and c) it was my first visit to the Donmar.

Elena Roger and David Thaxton in Passion at the Donmar

The space itself is very intimate. The stage is surrounded by only four rows to its front, left and right side, with a very narrow balcony above. Unlike a traditional West End theatre, the audience is smack in the middle of the action, and the actors are merely feet away from you.

I won’t get into the details of the story, as I am sure that most readers are already familiar with the piece. What I would like to focus on is the Donmar’s brilliant reincarnation of this show, especially compared to the original Broadway cast, which starred the formidable Donna Murphy (and can be found on DVD).

Overall, this is a more spontaneous, livelier and younger version of that production.

From the moment it starts, both lovers run onto the stage from the wings and jump on a bed, frantically make out, have a stage orgasm and start singing “Happiness.” And no, unlike the Broadway version, they are clothed. The overall production takes itself less seriously than the Broadway version, for example “Happiness” is by far more playful and more innocent than the Broadway staging.

There are many segments in the show where Georgio reads love letters by Clara, played by Scarlett Strallen. Unlike previous versions that show Clara strutting down the stage in a huge gown and parasol, Donmar’s Clara interrupts scenes, jumps on dinner tables in her lingerie and sings straight to Georgio. She is free, beautiful and full of life, and it becomes clear why Georgio is so infatuated with her.

Of course, Elena Roger, who plays Fosca, handles the toughest part in the play. Elena Roger previously played Edith Piaf in Piaf and Eva Peron the Evita London revival (soon heading to Broadway) to great acclaim.

Roger’s beautifully well-rounded portrayal is quite a departure from Murphy’s original, which I never thought could be topped. Unlike Murphy’s continuously melancholy and dead serious approach, Roger’s Fosca is manipulative, extremely strange and unsettling, but also very witty and unexpectedly humorous in many occasions. Her line readings are very unique, at times reexamining the text, and the results are fantastic.

Her leading man, David Thaxton, does a fine job as Georgio. He starts off as a clean cut strapping young man whom you’d love to take home – until the end where he becomes emotionally shattered and broken.

Passion has never been one of Sondheim’s most celebrated works, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not being engrossed by this wonderfully layered musical. I have high hopes for this production, which I hope it either extends its run at the Donmar or finds a small West End house for a longer run.

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