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Pittsburgh troupe launches with rarely seen Sondheim work 'Passion'

Aleç Donaldson (left) and Jezabel Zbonzy Delpercio star in "Passion."
Courtesy Mr. Smalls Theatrical
Aleç Donaldson (left) and Jezabel Zbonzy Delpercio star in "Passion."

An appreciation for the works of Stephen Sondheim is, let’s say, no rarity among practitioners of musical theater. But Sondheim fandom has played an unusually large role in the genesis of Pittsburgh’s newest theater troupe.

Jordan Speranzo and Nick Grosso met as students at Carnegie Mellon University a couple years back, while working on a production of “Sweeney Todd”; Grosso was in the cast, Speranzo the music director. Now, the two recent School of Drama graduates have chosen Sondheim’s rarely performed 1994 show “Passion” as the premiere production of Mr. Smalls Theatricals, whose headquarters is the landmark Millvale concert hall Mr. Smalls.

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The staging is likely the show’s Pittsburgh debut: “Passion” won four Tony Awards, including best musical, but it was not a commercial hit. The show's original Broadway run was brief, and it has since seen only a couple revivals.

“The critics recognized that it was really, really amazing and really ahead of its time, but audiences didn’t really like it at the time,” said Speranzo, who is serving as musical director.

The chamber opera is based on I.U. Tarchetti’s novel “Fosca,” and its film adaptation, “Passione d’Amore.” It tells the story of an Italian soldier named Giorgio who, separated from his mistress, becomes the object of the obsessive love of Fosca, his colonel’s chronically ill cousin.

The music and lyrics are by Sondheim (“Company,” “Gypsy”), with a book by James Lapine (“Into the Woods”).

“It’s a very challenging show, it’s a very surprising show,” said Grosso, who is directing. “It’s such a hidden gem in [Sondheim’s] catalog.”

For Speranzo, the Smalls connection isn't random: Liz Berlin and Mike Speranzo, the venue’s founders and co-owners, are his parents. It’s their first major effort to host something besides concerts and comedians at Smalls, a former church that Berlin and Speranzo opened as a venue in 2002.

“We really see it as, Jordan is taking the legacy that Mike and I have built with Mr. Smalls and really making it his own, and taking it in a direction he feels passionately about,” Berlin said. “I’m really excited to see us expanding in this direction.”

“Passion” is an ambitious work with which to launch a theater troupe. The protagonist is Giorgio, a handsome Italian soldier separated from his beautiful mistress. When Fosca—his colonel’s chronically ill cousin—falls obsessively in love with him, Giorgio must rethink his beliefs about love.

“It makes you question your ideas about intimacy,” said Speranzo. “It opens on this scene that feels like it could be the end of a more standard love-story musical, but it’s like the beginning. And you watch this seemingly perfect relationship crumble as the main character explores what love means to them.”

The cast includes soprano Jezabel Zbozny Delpercio, as Fosca, and tenor Aleç Donaldson, as Giorgio.

The Smalls main room, familiar to generations of concertgoers, will be deployed in a fresh way for the show. The action won’t play out simply on the proscenium stage, but rather there, on the floor, and even in the balcony, for an audience in temporary seating with the stage to its right.

The show runs two hours. It was written as a one-act, but well into rehearsal, the production team chose to split it into two acts to enhance audience comfort.

“Passion” receives three performances, Fri., Aug. 26, through Sun., Aug. 28. More information is here.

Updated: August 22, 2022 at 2:33 PM EDT
This story was updated to reflect newly announced information about the production.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: