“Singing Yalies caught in a bad romance.”
That’s the subheading on the Facebook event page for “PASSION,” a student production of the famous James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim musical. It’s a tacky and jarring introduction to the musical’s layered and tangled love triangle. And the posters for the show — featuring slanted lettering and a black, red and white motif — are equally cheesy.
But luckily, this production — which opened last night at the Whitney Theatre — proves itself to be an excellent case of false first impressions.
The show opens with a sloppy love scene between Georgio — a stern soldier played by Miles Jacoby ’11 — and his mistress, Clara, played by Emily Jenda ’10. A bed is whisked into the small theatre and, amid the dark mass, two forms appear singing “So Much Happiness,” a theme that weaves throughout the musical.
The spontaneity of Jenda’s subtle voice, with soft crescendos that quickly evaporate, underlines the ephemeral nature of the lovers’ happiness, as minutes later Giorgio reveals he has to leave on assignment. Meanwhile Jacoby — whose voice will be familiar to fans of “College Musical” — slowly furrows his brow through the song while the situation turns sour and keeps his pained expression frozen for the remainder of his two-hour performance, as if suffering from the world’s longest brain freeze.
While both performances are exceedingly memorable, the true highlight of the show is the neurotic, sick and disillusioned Fosca, played by Danielle Frimer ’10. Wrapped in a shapeless green dress, her pale skin outlined with slick black hair, the actress looks somewhat reminiscent of Kelly Cutrone, the infamous founder of the fashion firm, People’s Revolution. She is immediately recognizable as pitiable.
Frimer’s searing screams near the top of the show preface her remarkably organic portrayal of the pathetic character. Her face communicates Fosca’s rickety nature, with awkward smiles and doe-like eyes swiftly giving way to pinched expressions.
What makes her performance outstanding, however, is her singing. She is able to actively make her voice sound faintly unstable and rough, her notes faltering, her volume rising seemingly without her control. She comes across as so naturally deranged, and so hopelessly in love with Giorgio, that several audience members exhaled empathetic sighs when she fell to the ground midway through the musical.
Set in late 19th century Italy, another strength of the play is — appropriately enough — its costuming, designed by Claire Seaver ’11. The military blazers of the soldiers are well fitted, the billowing red shirt of the false Count Ludovic of Austria — played by Alex Caron ’13 — appears aptly cheap and decadent, and the beaded off-white wedding jacket of Clara is rich and antiquated. Although the ubiquitous black rubber boots, worn by more than half the cast, remind the audience of tough, jackbooted soldiers, they’re nonetheless historically jarring, as one would expect such uniformed soldiers to be off participating in World War II.
The musical accompaniment — under the direction of Daniel Schlosberg ’10 — is also a key asset to the show. The snare drum, which carried the piece in between scene changes, was crisp, showing no sense of hesitation on the rare occasions when actors arrived on stage late.
The musical does sometimes lag, however.
Occasionally, the monotonously firm expression on the soldiers’ faces feels staid and one-dimensional, some passionate pleas feel overtly melodramatic and a rare few lines are confused. But regardless, these few imperfections don’t significantly detract from the otherwise faultless performances.
The musical — which is famous on Broadway for having the shortest run of any Best Musical Tony winner — will be ending its three-day run Saturday.