REVIEW: Passion at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Ruthie’s back and brimming with Passion!

Passion is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim was the legend that musical theater lost late last year at the age of 91. The composer behind the complicated and clever lyrics of Company, Into the Woods and of course West Side Story – to name but a few – was rightly one of the most celebrated names in musical theater throughout his career, but it is easy to see why his show Passion didn’t really take off like his others.

The story follows a young Italian soldier, Giorgio (played by Dean John-Wilson) who is having an affair with young married girl Clara (Kelly Price) and believes wholly that he is in love with her until the ailing Fosca – a relative of his superior – comes along and begins to pursue him relentlessly. At first, he is flattered and merely tries to ignore the advances made by the older woman, but as he exchanges letters with his mistress back home – staged beautifully as a series of seamlessly integrating songs – the show really starts to beg the question – what exactly is love? Is there a line between adoration and obsession?

The show itself is a Hope Mill Theater production and is directed by Michael Strasson, following on from the company’s acclaimed original production of The Wiz over Christmas 2021.

The musical started out as a one-act piece developed back in 1994 on Broadway and a West End production followed, but while critics were impressed and the show went on to win multiple Tony Awards, audiences were left bemused by the Italian love story and both productions closed mere months after opening night.

The musical marks the first major production in the UK for over a decade and stars none other than West End legend Ruthie Henshall in the role of Fosca. Ruthie is probably best known to television audiences for her judging stint on Dancing on Ice and her appearance on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2020 but has a theater CV that shines through decades. Since starting out in theater in the late 1980s, Ruthie has starred as Fantine in Les Miserables, Roxie Hart on both sides of the Atlantic, Ellen in Miss Saigon and played Mr. Wilkinson in the closing cast of Billy Elliot: The Musical. Passion marks a return to musical theater for the actress and she does not disappoint. Ruthie proves that she can tackle anything and – although it was at first a little jarring to see a performer used to the caliber of the Royal Albert Hall or the London Palladium – she captures the space perfectly. A personal highlight included her big opening number ‘I Read’, in which her character fiercely dreams of a different life. When it comes to Ruthie, you can take the girl out of the West End but you can’t take the West End out of the girl.

All other members of the cast were on top form and worked well together, but one other performer who deserves a particular mention is Kelly Price. As one of the few multifaceted characters in the show, the audience is led to love her, loathe her and feel sorry for her in varying degrees all at once. Kelly has a voice as clear as crystal and is a worthy follower of Ruthie in roles such as Fantine and Ellen.

The major problem with this production is its small size. For totally understandable reasons, the show has been downsized and played on a shoestring, but this means that some of Sondheim’s typically powerful score leaves the whole thing feeling a little diluted. The Hope Mill Theater is an incredibly cramped studio venue, with no more than 100 seats, making the £39.50 ticket price seems a little steep.

No matter how much passion – pun intended – performers have, it is sometimes impossible to pull off the caliber of something such as Sondheim when the production’s atmosphere is not a match.

However, the minimal sets were all amplified by the creative genius of Chrisie Lites, whose lighting design never allows the audience to forget that we are in an Italian warzone.

Overall, despite its best-efforts Passion fails to live up to other Sondheim’s works simply because the story – although interesting – is not really enough to stretch into two sung-through acts, as it was set up in production. The cast put their absolute all into it but are let down by the nature of the piece, coupled with the claustrophobic venue.

An ambitious piece of theater with a lot of potential, so here’s hoping it gets the chance to open somewhere bigger.

Passion runs at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until 5th June.

Review by Jordan Lloyd Beck

Rating: ★★★

Seat: E8 | Price of Ticket: £39.50

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