MusicalNorth WestReview

Passion – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: James Mac

Director: Michael Strassen

Based on the film Passion of Love by Ettore Scola, which itself is an adaption of the mid 19th Century Iginio Ego Tarchetti novel, this musical is one of the later and lesser rated musicals of the late Stephen Sondheim and James Lappin collaboration. First staged in 1994, the musical is centred around its namesake: Passion. It therefore feels so appropriate to witness this musical, shared on the small stage of the Hope Mill Theatre, allowing the piece to revel in its own intimacy in such an immediate and personal setting, letting each audience member feel like a fly on the wall in this journey of love and raw emotion.

Despite winning multiple Tonys, the show’s Broadway and West End runs fell short in the early 90’s, closing just months after their openings. So it begs the question: is this Sondheim musical relevant today? This reviewer certainly thinks so. Despite its setting (1863, Milan) feeling seductively dark and worlds away from modern day Manchester, it raises the universal question that we can all relate to: what is love? Is it obsession? Adoration? Passion?

Having not been staged in the UK for over a decade, it’s no wonder all eyes seem fixed on this production and its legendary, musical theatre starlet in the leading role: Ruthie Henshall. For somebody with such an elaborate resume spanning the West End’s biggest stages and festival halls alike, Henshall captures the intimacy of this space with ease. Henshall’s Fosca is exquisite. She brings deep dimension and lives this role before your eyes. Her rich tones switch between smooth seduction and isolating grit. Her opening number is a particular highlight and a masterclass in top notch musical theatre acting through song. It must be said that this does feel like a main event in the UK’s musical theatre industry calendar – seeing such an overlooked piece by one of the genres legendary composers, played in such an intricate space that has previously produced top quality work with theatre royalty at the forefront – is a rarity. And all up North! Bravo to the Hope Mill for pushing the boundaries, yet again.

Kelly Price’s Cara is vivacious and watchable throughout and Dean John Wilson as Giorgio is a dreamy leading man, instinctively capturing the characters turmoil all the while with perfectly pitched vocals.

Michael Strassen’s direction is off the wall, with bold choices throughout, making this production feel as full-bodied as the wine being sipped by the buzzing press night audience at the bar during the interval. His understanding of Sondheim’s work is prevalent as he orchestrates this piece to not only work excellently in this venue, but simultaneously allowing his star cast to shine in their own unique ways, playing to their strengths and constantly moving the narrative. The piece is extremely well cast, blending a somehow contemporary feel into classic musical melodrama through its diverse ensemble of players in their deliciously contrasting roles. Yshani Perinpanayagam’s musical direction allows the all-male Soldier chorus to thrill and soar through the small venue, creating an epic and rich sound.

Erin Steele’s sliding panel set design feels steeped in symbolism and not just because of the rotted oil painting that seems to hint at theme of dilapidating beauty. Steele provides the perfect canvas for the intertwining tale. Charlie Morgan Jones’ lighting design magnifies this story with such beautiful and intricate lighting that makes the story unfold with photogenic storybook picture moments, never letting us forget where we are. The minimal set is brought to life by his design that not only navigates us through the locations in the story but adds to the cinematic, epic-romance feel.

Overall, this production definitely feels pitched towards connoisseurs of the genre but this cast captures this traditional tale with realism and depth. If you are a fan of Sondheim, then you have to see this production, not only for its subtleties and nuanced touches that its intimate setting allow to be magnified, but also the chance to see such a rare gem staged with this particular cast and creative team at the helm.

Runs until 5th June

The Reviews Hub Score

Delectable night of intimacy and all round passion!

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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