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Sondheim's elixir of love: Passion ignites 

Queen City Theatre Company explore beauty, love in latest production

Beauty, adoration and orgasmic delight may be the most addictive natural aphrodisiacs, and at the beginning of Stephen Sondheim's Passion, Giorgio seems to have it all in Clara. She's beautiful, adores him (he's a certified hunk himself), enjoys being with him, and, as the great Barry White would say, "Can't get enough of your love, babe."

So what happens to Captain Giorgio Bachetti in 1863 when he's deployed from the side of his paramour in Milan to a backwater military outpost is quite extraordinary. Instead of being captivated by some vivacious local beauty, he gradually becomes enmeshed in the adoration he receives from his commanding officer's cousin, the sickly, ugly, ferociously clinging Fosca. How all this can possibly happen — to the amazement of Giorgio himself — is a forbidden flower that mysteriously unfolds through the wondrous Tony Award-winning elixir of James Lapine's book and Sondheim's score.

Stunningly, it is the force of Fosca's total devotion and surrender that trumps Clara's more conventional attractions. This is passion down to the bone.

On Broadway, Jere Shea as Giorgio and Marin Mazzie as Clara were unforgettable in the opening scene, bathed in golden light, naked from the waist up between silken bedsheets, rhapsodizing "Happiness" to one another, and copulating like Roman gods. As Fosca, Donna Murphy was epic in her 1994 Tony Award-winning performance, a diva of ugliness.

Queen City Theatre Company artistic director Glenn T. Griffin doesn't have quite as statuesque a pair of lovebirds in the present Passion at Spirit Square. Nor does he send Kristian Wedolowski and Brooke Mize stripped naked into the spotlight. Cynthia Farbman Harris would probably need to cake on extra makeup to rival the diseased ugliness of the Fosca that Lapine directed — and the horrid mole that Murphy sported over her left cheekbone must still be on back order.

Yet in many ways, Passion works better when it isn't trying to be a big Broadway musical. Wedolowski bellows some of his vocals instead of singing them, and he needs to be more of a self-assured glamor boy when he first meets Fosca, but his chemistry with Clara from afar — when they're communicating through a series of six letters — is exceptional, partly because at Duke Energy Theatre they're not separated by a vast Broadway set. Best of all, he bridges the transitions from pity and repulsion toward Fosca to ardent love better than Shea on Broadway, probably because he and Griffin get the idea that this is Beauty and the Beast with genders reversed. So Wedolowski's capitulation to Fosca is by far the most affecting I've seen.

As for Harris, the best singer onstage, she schooled herself for Fosca three years ago with her memorable portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class, reliving the humiliating Onassis-Jackie triangle. The groveling, the hysterical cries and collapses are all delivered full-out like an Italian diva, though her hair is pulled back, her dresses are drab, and she looks like death. Mize has the best voice onstage, she radiates youth, and her costumes are in resplendent contrast to Harris'. But her self-assurance deficit is larger than Wedolowski's.

The rental costumes, Barbara Berry's lighting and Marty Gregory's pocket orchestra are all impressive, and Tim Baxter-Ferguson's set design shuttles us efficiently between scenes. With all this period authenticity, Griffin makes two questionable calls: He breaks the captivating spell by inserting an intermission and further dilutes the intensity with some laughable double-casting. Fosca's mom shouldn't be a guy.

The supporting cast is strong, though. As Giorgio's commanding officer, Steven B. Martin reprises the military stodginess we saw from him in Evita; Scott Miller swaggers impudently as Fosca's one-time beau; and Michael Harris, limping with officious dignity, makes Doctor Tambourri richly nuanced as he navigates the tricky terrain of Fosca's hysteria, hypochondria and self-pity.

Altogether, this is a deep study of three lovers — and what love is — wrapped in Sondheim's most mesmerizing score.

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