NEW YORK — AFTER the chilly, ironic exercises of ``Into the Woods'' and ``Assassins,'' it makes sense that Stephen Sondheim would want to put some passion back into his work. His new musical, ``Passion,'' is based on a 1981 Italian film (itself based on an 1869 novel) about obsessive love, but he has approached his subject with the same intellectual detachment.
This is another collaboration with director and book writer James Lapine (``Sunday in the Park with George,'' and ``Into the Woods''), and the composer might consider hooking up again with someone like Hal Prince, whose vivid brand of theatricality might invigorate him. This is an alienating, stubbornly monochromatic work that audiences will find extremely wearisome.
``Passion'' tells of Giorgio (played by Jere Shea), a young army captain stationed at a remote Italian military outpost. He is having an affair with Clara (Marin Mazzie), a married woman living in Milan, but he soon becomes the object of desire for Fosca (Donna Murphy), the sister of the colonel in charge.
Fosca is hideously unattractive, and also very sickly, suffering from a variety of physical and nervous elements. But shortly after seeing Giorgio, she becomes fixated on him, her attentions becoming more and more intense. For Giorgio, a mixture of sympathy, fascination, and helplessness in the face of Fosca's unceasing attentions draws him further and further into her spell. He begins to examine his own relationship with Clara and the meaning of love; the bizarre triangle results in tragedy.
The ending, aside from its melodrama, is ultimately unsatisfying. The characters seem to bear too much symbolic import and their actions are not psychologically convincing.
Sondheim's music, which has become increasingly minimal, is barely felt here, making little emotional impact. Even his lyrics, which admittedly could not have been overly witty while staying within the stylistic confines of the material, are uncharacteristically routine.
This is a score better suited to small-scale opera houses than a Broadway theater. Jonathan Tunick's complex and gorgeous orchestrations often make it sound better than it is.
As usual, Lapine has directed with a firm hand, in a heavily stilted manner (reminiscent of ``Sunday in the Park'') that alternates between being beautiful and pretentious. Certainly the look of the show is fabulous, the painterly stage images seeming like the beautifully illustrated pages of a book. The sets, costumes, and lighting are all stunning, but all the effort, rather than enhancing the material, merely underscores its thinness.
In the pivotal role of Giorgio, whose emotional shifts are supposed to carry the theme, Shea's wooden performance too often fails to convey his character's inner turmoil.
Donna Murphy, who is an attractive woman, is made up to the point of unrecognizability as Fosca. Her performance isn't just in her appearance, however; she delivers a vocally strong, powerfully intense portrait of a disturbed woman. Mazzie, who makes quite an impression (she sings a love duet in the nude), is a charming Clara. In the role of the colonel, Gregg Edelman is miscast, and in various supporting roles such veteran actors as Tom Aldredge, Cris Groenendaal, and Francis Ruivivar are ill-used, playing stock characters.
This Broadway season has been the worst in modern times for the American musical. When contrasted to such offerings as ``The Red Shoes,'' ``Cyrano,'' ``Beauty and the Beast,'' and ``The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public,'' ``Passion'' is certainly the most artistically ambitious and coherent musical this year. Nonetheless, it is disheartening that the work has such little resonance.