Review: ‘Passion’ at Signature Theatre

Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, now playing at Signature Theatre, has two of the greatest songs in the composer’s brilliant portfolio – “I Wish I Could Forget You” and “Loving You” – and three complex, fascinating characters. But the achievement underlying them all is Sondheim’s ability to convey, in a 20th-century musical drama, the spirit of the dark 19th-century romance, so integral to classic opera, in which love and death, the erotic and the morbid, a desire for the peak experience of life and an impulse to self-annihilation, coexist and are bound inextricably together.

Steffanie Leigh (Clara) and Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) in Passion at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Steffanie Leigh (Clara) and Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) in ‘Passion’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Based on an 1869 Italian novel, Fosca, by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, and a 1981 film adaptation directed by Ettore Scola, Passione d’Amore, the story follows a handsome, intelligent, and sensitive young army officer, Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) from Milan, where he enjoys assignations with his beautiful, married lover Clara (Steffanie Leigh), to a remote provincial outpost where he meets the plain, sickly Fosca (Natascia Diaz), his commanding officer’s cousin.

We first see Giorgio and Clara making love, proclaiming their overwhelming happiness. It is a nude scene, and the physical beauty of the actors is important to their characters; their love to a great extent is their rapturous enjoyment of their own and their lover’s beauty. Giorgio has been posted to the hinterlands, and he and Clara meet in person only twice more in the show. They communicate through letters. Fosca was an epistolary novel, and Sondheim’s adaptation of that form in Passion is key to communicating the 19th-century sensibility of the piece.

In recent interviews, both Diaz and director Matthew Gardiner have taken pains to distance themselves from the common view of Fosca as a crazy, obsessive stalker. While this is an understandable reaction to oversimplifications in some comments about the show (one reviewer compared the Giorgio/Fosca relationship to “Beauty and the Beast”), they may protest too much.  In Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim himself uses words like “obsessiveness,” “self-dramatizing hysteric,” “extreme,” “shamelessness,” and “stalker” in discussing the character. Such words fairly describe her behavior; what fascinates about her character is one’s seeking an understanding of why she is who she is. Diaz explores deeply and illuminates the complexity of Fosca’s pain, her longing, her desperation, her relentlessness, her instinctual sense of what love feels like (“a love as pure as breath, as permanent as death, implacable as stone,” in one of the best lines Sondheim has ever written).

Diaz’s singing in the role is impeccable, not only with respect to its technical demands but to the emotion that is essential to her character. I have never heard “Loving You” performed better, including in the original Broadway production.

Fosca “drives the piece,” as Sondheim notes, and makes the most indelible imprint of any character in the show, but it is Giorgio who has the longest character arc. He begins in sweet, physically passionate, love in the light of the afternoon with Clara and, after lengthy resistance, is drawn into Fosca’s far darker, more dangerous, single-minded devotion. The transition has created credibility problems from the show’s beginnings. How could someone like Giorgio ultimately come to love someone like Fosca?

Sondheim admired the Giorgio in a 2010 London production for playing the character as a vulnerable innocent on the cusp of change, and Elder’s performance has some of that flavor. His Giorgio has never encountered anyone as insightfully manipulative or emotionally extravagant as Fosca. So in his innocence, he is prey – in the end, willing prey – to Fosca’s more powerful and focused intensity. He comes to adopt her view that only love that is willing to sacrifice everything – “Love without reason/Love without mercy/Love without pride or shame/Love unconcerned/with being returned” – is worthy of the name. Such love is mad – not only in the sense of a kind of insanity but of mutually assured destruction – but it is all that finally matters to them.

Natascia Diaz (Fosca) and Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) in Passion at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Natascia Diaz (Fosca) and Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) in Passion at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Clara is more pragmatic, wanting her beautiful afternoon lover while maintaining her normal life with her husband and child, at least until the child is a little older. She cannot bear to leave everything in her life to be with Giorgio, leading to the demise of their relationship. Leigh’s Clara keeps an even keel and her dignity, even amidst her deep desire for Giorgio and the sadness of their love becoming “nothing.” Unlike Fosca and Giorgio, she is a survivor. Her life will go on. Elder and Lee sing their roles gloriously.

The supporting cast and ensemble are noticeably less important to Passion than to many other Sondheim shows and are fairly lightly sketched in. Will Gartshore (Giorgio’s commanding officer, Col. Ricci) and John Leslie Wolfe (the meddlesome Dr. Tambourini) have the most significant supporting roles, and they carry them flawlessly. Gregory Maheu and Katie Mariko Murray, in addition to other ensemble roles, have striking bits as the caddish Ludovic and his bitter ex-mistress.

[Related: Eric Schaeffer Discuses Signature Theatre’s Upcoming ‘Passion’ by Geoffrey Melada]

In Lee Savage’s scenic design, Signature’s MAX space is configured with a long, narrow central playing area between two banks of seats, with a balcony at either end. Music director Jon Kalbfleisch’s full ensemble, playing the original Broadway orchestration gorgeously, is situated behind one of the balconies. Colin K. Bills’ lighting is nicely subtle, suggesting light and shadow effectively, and with a particularly lovely effect softly highlighting Fosca and Giorgio at the end of the show.

In a program note, costume designer Robert Perdziola spoke of seeking not period exactness but of dress evoking the period. In this he succeeds – the male ensemble’s military uniforms are trim and regimented, Fosca’s long dark dress is appropriately severe, and Clara’s dresses are large and fashionable. Her blue, partially sheer negligee is an erotic dream.

Signature has a long history of doing Sondheim well, and this production is no exception.  Every aspect of the show is beautifully realized, every character is finely delineated, and Sondheim’s rich, romantic score is played and sung to perfection. For any Sondheim fan, it’s a must; for anyone who has not seen Passion before, it can be a revelation.

Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes, with no intermission.

Passion plays through September 23, 2018, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA (in the Shirlington complex).  For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.


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