There is something momentous and magical taking place in southern New Mexico’s theater community: a growing sensibility that professionalism and uncommon stagecraft is not out of reach. Las Cruces may not have the deep pockets and wide community appeal of other metropolitan regions, but it does have an enormously capable pool of talent to draw from and under the proper direction, is beginning to attract the kind of attention from which enterprise is created.
A shining example of this phenomenon is Scaffolding Theater Company, which is currently electrifying the community of Las Cruces with a short, but memorable, one weekend run of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning “Passion: The Musical.” With respectable crowds and standing ovations, this tenacious fledgling troupe is proving that one doesn’t need a stationary brick and mortar location to create noteworthy achievements. Not when attention to detail, creative use of space and extraordinary performances are being offered.
All that said, dark drama, pathos and an almost grotesque gothic sensibility may not be typical ingredients for a musical – “Phantom Of The Opera” notwithstanding – but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s adaptation of the film “Passione d’Amore” is a worthy entry to the love-as-obsession milieu. In the capable hands of STC’s co-artistic directors Justin Lucero and Megan McQueen, “Passion: The Musical” mines that entry for every ounce of emotion possible and scores once again, with their second theatrical production of the season, and only the third since the company’s inception in the summer of 2014.
Set in 1863 Italy, Passion follows the fever dream memories of handsome army captain Giorgio, who has been separated from his beautiful, married mistress Clara and sent to a remote military outpost where his views on love are challenged by the obsessive, unrelenting passions of Fosca, his Colonel’s homely, sickly cousin. Considered one of Sondheim’s most emotional and intimate works, the play is at once familiar to any who have experienced unrequited love and haunting in its complex turns of fate that ultimately drive two very different and unlikely lovers together.
Told through a series of letters exchanged first by Giorgio and Clara, then augmented by Fosca, the events of the play are peppered with strong turns by recognizable talents – including Mike Cook as Dr. Tombourri, James Gier as Colonel Ricci and Cameron Lang as Lt. Torasso – in harmonious, almost shadowy roles. Staged in a claustrophobic fashion, the intimate confines of the historic Rio Grande Theatre become the perfect repository for the suffering and intensity pouring forth from its dark stage.
As with STC’s first two productions, “Nine” and “Chicago,” casting is an important part of what makes this production soar. Bringing in native El Pasoan Isaac Quiroga – who has gone on to earn a master’s degree in musical theater from New York University and currently resides in the act factory of Los Angeles – tips the balance in favor of distinction. As the noble, if somewhat clueless Giorgio, Quiroga is strong and dignified, with a clear operatic voice perfectly in keeping with Sondheim’s “chamber opera” offering.
As Clara, the comely mistress Giorgio left behind, the prodigiously talented Amanda Bradford matches Quiroga note for note, captivating musically, while twirling coquettishly as though she were born to the hoops and skirts so beautifully rendered by costume virtuoso Guenevere McMahon and promising student assistant Megan Thompson.
McQueen herself assays the role of “ugly and sickly” spinster Fosca, and though it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine her interpreting such negative traits, it’s a testament to the actress’ talents that she is able to create a believable and engaging character, not just through makeup and dowdy costuming, but with body language and exaggerated facial expressions, as well. Here, too, musical prowess is on display, completing a beguiling triad of hypnotic musical complexity.
As usual, with productions by this company, the sets are spare and versatile, allowing the audience to use its collective imagination to conjure context. White drapes on an otherwise darkened stage become canvases for lighting effects in designer Sam Tyson’s capable hands, even as they are lifted, suspended and twisted into backdrops, curtains, sickbed canopies, garden pavilions and more by the actors. Making use of two beds, two wooden chairs and a small writing desk, director Lucero brings to life intimate moments in dark bedrooms, tense office confrontations and boisterous debates in crowded dining halls with equal verisimilitude.
I’d like to add here that, as a former manager of the Rio Grande Theatre, and one who feels he has a stake in its continued prosperity, I was thrilled to learn that Scaffolding Theater Company would make it ground zero for its third production. Following in the daunting footsteps of Mark Medoff’s Sage Theatricals, who staged “Waiting For Godot” in that space back in early January, Scaffolding becomes the second semi-professional local production company within a year to do so, hopefully cementing the historic structure’s reputation as a viable staging ground for legitimate theater. As for the production, itself, there is nothing more to say, except bravo to a brilliant cast and an accomplished crew.
McQueen and Lucero’s many connections within the abundant talent pool of Las Cruces and El Paso allow for collaborations that until recently were rare in these parts. Mining the best and brightest from local community theaters and University drama and music departments, then sprinkling in turns by respected arts professionals like piano virtuoso David Cunniff makes sublime use of area resources, while showcasing the potential for further exploration. Take note, fellow thespians; the bar continues to rise with each production by Scaffolding Theater Company. After three successful and highly enjoyable productions, it’s safe to say this troupe is no flash in the pan. Studying their examples should be an inspiration to us all.
It’s a simple equation, really. With more dedication to the craft and better production values come larger audiences. And despite the persistent belief that community theater can only be about “fun and friendships,” thus removing any onus to fully engage and captivate a paying audience, we are entering into a new chapter of competence that will, I believe, change the landscape of amateur theater in the area for the better. That is how a truly passionate community comes into its own.