REVIEW: An exquisite “Passion” at Arlington’s Signature Theatre
Despite winning the 1994 Tony Award for Best Musical, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s intimate, chamber-sized musical melodrama “Passion” remains a rarely performed, peculiar entry in their respective cannons—haunting, exquisite, and, at times, deeply uncomfortable to watch.
“Passion” made one of its first regional theatre debuts at Signature in 1996. This new production, which kicks off their 29th season, is tautly staged by director Matthew Gardiner (Signature’s “Sunday in the Park with George”) with superb balance and terrific tension throughout, featuring striking and beautiful designs, lush instrumentation, a full-voiced ensemble, and notable performances by Natascia Diaz (City Center Encores! “Grand Hotel”) and Claybourne Elder (“Sunday in the Park with George”, Signature and Broadway).
Based on a thinly autobiographical 1869 novella by Italian writer Iginio Ugo Tarchetti that was adapted into the film “Passione d’Amore” by Ettore Scola in 1981, “Passion” is a richly textured and introspective meditation on the nature of love. Set in 1860s Italy, the musical concerns an affair between Clara (Steffanie Leigh, “War Horse”), a comfortably married Milanese woman, and Giorgio (Mr. Elder), a handsome soldier who is re-assigned to a provincial outpost in a range of remote mountains under the command of Colonel Ricci (Will Gartshore).
Upon arriving, Giorgio learns of the Colonel’s reclusive and terminally ill cousin, Fosca (Ms. Diaz), who soon becomes obsessed with Giorgio. Although initially repelled by her illness, appearance, and behavior, at the direction of a doctor, Giorgio offers his affection as succor for Fosca’s continued life. The story then inexorably pushes toward Giorgio’s realization that real love is not a happy, pleasure-based convenience—the reasoned “negotiation” he has with Clara—but rather a deeper, more complicated and unconditional connection with another person, which he finds with Fosca before (spoiler alert!) her tragic death.
Ms. Diaz simply shines in this production, summoning a delicate Fosca of great emotional intensity and measured madness. Thin and slight, dressed in all black with a pallid, dour, and pitiful tear-stained visage, she inspires great pathos and a bevy of squirms across the audience, especially in her most cringe-inducing moments of embarrassing desperation for Giorgio’s affection.
Ms. Diaz’s Fosca is no crazed ghoul—the easy approach—but rather a fragile, sick woman who bucks conventional gender expectations of her time while drawing on a perversely deep well of dignity, strength, and perspicuity. She imbues each of Fosca’s songs with a devastating ache, borne of unrelenting melancholy and seclusion, but avoids the cloying stridency that might otherwise alienate an audience, offering up a fresh take on an iconic role unforgettably created in a Tony-winning performance by Donna Murphy.
Mr. Elder, performing in his tenth Sondheim show to date, is an attractive and cerebral Girogio. His take is reserved, but the magnetism in his scenes with Ms. Diaz is palpable, compelling, and simply captivating. The two are a remarkable pair. As for Ms. Leigh, she makes the least impression as Clara, an admittedly less interesting character who fades from view as the frustrated and unlikely relationship between Girogio and Fosca fitfully blooms.
“Passion” features one of the most striking opening tableaus to be found in any musical: a military drum roll overlaid with the crash of an atonal orchestral chord as lights rise on Giorgio and Clara naked in bed, mid-orgasm. That first song, “Happiness”, establishes the lusty, pleasure-based romance between the two.
In this production, Giorgio and Clara’s carnal connection is never convincingly demonstrated in the opening, which, despite the setup and Mr. Elder and Ms. Leigh’s beautiful voices, lacks the pure sex and desire that should drip from the stage. This handicaps the development of other relationships throughout the balance of the show, depriving an important source of tension.
The love triangle is heavily melodramatic, but that is the genre, and Mr. Sondheim does not shy from delivering perhaps his most unabashedly romantic score. A treat for a regional production, Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations are performed in full by a 16-piece orchestra, which is hard to come by even on Broadway these days, underscoring Signature’s commitment to producing first class productions of great musicals.
That commitment extends to the design team. Expensive-looking and well-fitting uniforms for the men, and perfect period-inspired gowns for the women are highlights of Robert Perdziola’s costumes. Wigs by Anne Nesmith are equally impressive, but the coup-de-grâce belongs to lighting designer Colin K. Bills whose work is central to establishing the smoky and shadowy atmosphere of romance and mystery that permeates this show.
The black box mainstage of Signature’s $16 million facility transforms to provide a new seating configuration for every production, here a runway mid-space splicing the audience in half on risers facing each other. Set designer Lee Savage provides unfussy furniture—a bed on one end and a table and chairs at the other—that allow transitions to flow smoothly, and a balcony and spiral staircase at opposite ends of the stage that Mr. Gardiner uses with thoughtful precision. Suspended from the ceiling is a blanket of flowers, a smart nod to several floral allusions in the lyrics that further enhances the beauty of the overall design.
Inspired by the structure of the book it was based upon, a good portion of the musical is an epistolary, the characters’ perspectives and emotions nakedly revealed through the reading and writing of intimate letters as read by author and respondent. Mr. Sondheim has smartly observed that all three characters in the love triangle are often charged with being “unlikable”, largely, he suspects, because of the biting similarities we see in ourselves reflected in their actions and words.
That mirror makes for entertainment that makes you think and, yes, even writhe in your seat. Uncomfortable laughter litters the audience; one woman behind me reacting to a plea from Fosca said aloud at full-voice: “yikes”. Like his admonition at the end of “Sweeney Todd” (interestingly enough, the only other musical project whose idea Mr. Sondheim birthed), maybe today you gave a nod to Fosca, or Clara, or Giorgio in your actions and words.
Signature Theatre—a 2009 Tony Award Winner for Best Regional Theatre—has mounted 29 productions of Mr. Sondheim’s musicals in as many seasons, becoming the premiere producer of the celebrated composer/lyricist’s work in the country. While Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer freely admits the company never explicitly set out to earn that title, it has become, well, their signature.
If you live in the D.C.-metro area or will be passing through between now and September 23rd, do be sure to catch this exquisite production of “Passion”.
Bottom Line: Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia mounts a gorgeous, first-class production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 Tony-winning best musical, “Passion”, featuring striking and beautiful designs, lush instrumentation, a full-voiced ensemble, and notable performances by Natascia Diaz and Claybourne Elder. If you live in the D.C.-metro area, or will be passing through, be sure to check out this rarely seen chamber-sized musical melodrama.