Zoetic Stage's current production filled with palpable 'Passion'

MIAMI, Fla. -- "What is love," the song released in 1993 by Haddaway asks.

You won't find simple, black and white answers in "Passion," the 1994 Tony-Award-winning chamber musical receiving a production full of honest emotion, soaring, captivating singing voices, backed by a small but clear-sounding orchestra, superb acting and, of course, real passion by Miami's Zoetic Stage.

The production, a South Florida premiere playing through March 13 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, is among the most powerful theatrical experiences you'll find in the Miami area today, thanks to a splendid cast led by director Stuart Meltzer and his production team.

The heartfelt, bold, haunting, often dark and elegant musical touches on external vs internal beauty, the complex terrain of the human heart, the power of devotion as well as the nature of love and its potential connections to one's physical health.

"Passion" is one of the incomparable Stephen Sondheim's lesser-known works, but it's a thought-provoking, complex, sophisticated look into human nature and emotions. It will make you re-think your notion of love, appearances, dedication and the people in your life.

The musical, set amid 19th century war-torn Italy, keeps you riveted to the stage, due in large part to its fluidty and frequently shifting emotions. Of course, one must also credit Sondheim's genius for penning vivid lyrics with smart rhymes and his sophisticated, complex and elegant music. It is music that gets to the heart and soul of a character's emotions, as do the lyrics.

This production is stunning not only in its emotional power, but in its visuals, with lighting designer Rebecca Montero creating a variety of hues and intensities to set just the right moods. The red lighting against scenic designer Michael McKeever's black staircase, railing and table establish an elegant atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Ellis Tillman's detailed, eye-appealing period costumes deftly define character, particularly differentiating the lonely, gloomy Fosca, who's clad in a grey outfit and at times in a deathly white costume and Clara, sporting wide, long, bright and patterned dresses. Tillman's authentic-looking military uniforms carry an air of formality with them.

Sondheim's been called the Shakespeare of musical theater and he's never shied away from working with subject matter you ordinarily wouldn't associate with musicals: People who've killed or tried to kill presidents (Zoetic Stage won a Carbonell Award, representing among the best of South Florida theater, for Sondheim's "Assassins"), a throat-slitting barber out for revenge, romance ending in tragedy and isolation.

Loneliness, sickness and heart-shattering rejection are some of the themes making up "Passion."

We're in 1863 Italy and military captain Giorgio must leave his mistress, Clara, due to his transfer to a provincial military outpost. There, a scream shatters the silence, the beginning of a process that will forever change Giorgio. The scream comes from Col. Ricci's (a righteous and later palpably angry Mark Sanders) sickly, unsightly cousin Fosca who "escapes" her life by immersing herself in books. She experienced a rough life beginning as a teenager when an Austrian count named Ludovic took her family's money, apparently causing her to become sick.

But if the count (played in a flashback with arrogance by Clay Cartland) made Fosca physically ill, she, ironically, hurts Giorgio by her incessant attempts to win over his love by following him around. Giorgio's a sensitive, patient, kind man, but even he has limits which, when pushed too far, cause him to explode.

While Fosca is no doubt pushy, annoying and relentless, a director and backstage crew can make an audience feel no sympathy for her by ugllifying an actress to the point that Fosca's some ugly old hag or witch stalking Giorgio. That's hardly the case here with Jeni Hacker as Fosca.

The actress has a long face into which melancholy, low self esteem and emotional pain are etched. Her ear-piercing screams are filled with hurt, but Hacker, sporting little if any makeup or lipstick and appearing pallid, also exudes a strong will, despite her physical problems (which might be more psychosomatic than real) and seemingly unending determination to win over Giorgio. Hacker's Fosca obviously feels blue, but she avoids conveying too much self-pity.

Hacker has an expressive, rangy voice which allows her to, among other things, hit the lower, somber notes in the haunting song "I Wish I Could Forget You." In it, Fosca imagines the kind of letter Giorgio would write to her, expressing his feelings of being hounded.

Nicholas Richberg gives a multifaceted perfomance as Giorgio. This talented actor who, like his castmates, lose themselves in their characters, exudes compassion, intimate love and sensitivity in the beginning. But, slowly but surely, as Fosca's constant attention begins to wear on him, Richberg conveys annoyance, exasperation and finally, explosively lashes out at Fosca in a convincing manner that made me cringe and feel sorry for the poor woman.

My identification with her is partly the result of the character's similarity to another love-starved, supposedly physically ill character: Colin Craven, the neglected youngster from the "children's" tale "The Secret Garden" and its musical adaptation. It's a touching, life-affirming story and a favorite of mine (Sunday marked my first time seeing "Passion.")

"The Secret Garden" isn't as complex as "Passion," but its similarities extend beyond Fosca's situation. "Garden," which I find a bit too deep and dark for children's fiction, also is set in a depressing setting into which young Mary Lennox, like Giorgio, comes into, hears screams and discovers a sickly character. There's also at least one reference to gardens in "Passion." In addition, a woman is compared to a flower.

If Fosca's a flower, she's like those within the neglected "Secret Garden," which has sat unmaintained and locked for years, a too-painful reminder of past memories. Fosca as a flower is wilting and needs the life-sustaining "nectar" of Giorgio's love to heal. But Giorgio's shunning Fosca and lashing out at her is poison to this "flower," leading to the sad ending, but one in which the military man is forever changed.

One of the production's many powerful moments, thanks to director to director Meltzer's sensitive staging, include the image at the end. Fosca has died and Giorgio's left alone. Meltzer has Richberg, as Giorgio, place both hands on his heart, his face obviously emotional as he realizes that Fosca's beauty lay if not outward, than in her inward, honest feelings for him which she cannot help. There's an echo of a much-deeper "Beauty and the Beast" here.

"Loving you is not a choice," she expresses to him earlier in the play. "It's who I am. Loving you is not in my control. But loving you I have a goal. I will live and I will die for you."

To Giorgio, such thinking seemed to represent an unhealthy obsession and a sick desire to stalk. But by the end, he's come to understand the meaning of true, undying love. It helps, of course, that Hacker's Fosca never comes across as a crazed stalker, but a lonely woman who's never been loved and is just inexperienced.

That's in contrast to Giorgio's mistress, Clara (a romantic, ambitious and at times jealous Anna Lise Jensen). The character appears in one of the more heartbreaking scenes, during which she and Giorgio, positioned snuggly, sing of loving, happy romance while at the same time, Fosca is positioned far away, alone, sadly singing of being lonely. The contrasting moods are marked and make us shift loyalties.

On the one hand, it's easy to sympathize with Giorgio, with his kind demeanor in the beginning and his all-too-human anger at Fosca's constant advances, having reached his wit's end. It's also understandable to want to scold Giorgio for carrying on with a married woman.

Sondheim wanted to create "Passion" after watching an Italian film.

"As Fosca started to speak and the camera cut back to her, I realized that the story was not about how she is going to fall in love with him, but about how he is going to fall in love with her," Sondheim has said.

The Zoetic production takes place in the thrust, (the audience is seated on three sides of the stage) intimate Carnival Studio Theater. The close proximity makes the production more visceral and the three-sided audience configuration is symbolic.

It's as though we're wrapping these characters and this gem of a musical in a well-deserved embrace.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Passion," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts' Carnival Studio Theatre, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. For ticket information, log onto www.arshtcenter.org.