BWW Review: Signature's Complex and Layered PASSION

BWW Review: Signature's Complex and Layered PASSION

Certain events signify the changing of the seasons from summer to fall. Back to school sales, the return of the pumpkin spice latte, and for DC theatergoers, the opening of Signature Theatre's new season with a production celebrating the work of America's greatest living composer, Stephen Sondheim - and oh, what a celebration they have with Passion.

Signature's production celebrates the complexities of love with a production filled with a career-defining performance by leading lady Natascia Diaz and the type of mature, sleek, and sexy direction rarely seen in Washington. Matthew Gardiner, who once again has excelled as a director and interpreter of Sondheim, has given us a production that though filled with elements of macabre, never lets the musical lose its key message: that love, means many things to many people.

Passion, the 1995 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical, shares some similarities with Signature's opening production from last season, A Little Night Music. Both musicals center around the complexity of love and human relationships. But that's where the comparison ends. Whereas Night Music is humorous and poignant with a light romantic atmosphere, Passion is anything but.

Set during the war for Italian unification, army captain Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) is stationed with his troops in a remote mountainous villa. Lee Savage's long, rectangular stage complete with faded flowers hung from the ceiling amongst mismatched chandeliers, captures the remoteness of this derelict locale. Two things help Giorgio pass time: letters from his beautiful girlfriend Clara (Steffanie Leigh) and exchanging books with Fosca (Natascia Diaz), his commanding officer's sickly cousin. While the friendship with Fosca is nice, at first, it quickly evolves into one of obsession, introspection, and dare I say it, passion.

No Sondheim work is ever easy to perform. The characters are complex, while the music and lyrics contain an honestly and ingenuity that reveals something new with each performance. Passion, thought, contains its own set of unique challenges. There is no rousing chorus numbers such as Follies "Who's That Woman (Mirror Number)" or Night Music's "Weekend In the Country." Passion is rather linear and then there are the characters, enter Fosca.

Diaz is no stranger to DC theatergoers. This reviewer first saw her a decade ago as the titular character in Signature's Kiss of the Spider Woman and never forgot that performance.

With Fosca, Diaz is giving the type of career defining performance that cannot be missed. With a portrayal that is well-nuanced, beautifully sung, and quite direct, Diaz's Fosca captivates and challenges the audience. Just when we've reached our frustration with her character's actions, she finds a way to pull us back, challenge our assumptions, and all the while accentuating the complexities of human relationships.

It is easy for an actress and director to accentuate all of Fosca flaws, making her pitiful in the process. Other productions have provided Fosca with physical abnormalities that play up her sickliness giving the audience a straightforward reason to be revolted by her. This production chooses to do something rather astute, proving once again why Signature is a master at all things Sondheim.

Instead, Robert Perdizola's costume design has Fosca dressed in all black making her look like a widow in mourning. The mourning though is not over any person, but rather the state of her life. The contrast between the women in Giorgio's life is exacerbated by Clara's being clothed in a series of vibrant array of blue silk and lace. Collin Bills' lighting almost always portrays Fosca in a blue-ish tint making her seem rather haunted. The result is that we judge Diaz's Fosca not by her appearance, but by her actions, intentions, and words.

Elder is stately and handsome as Giorgio. Having seen him as George in Signature's Sunday in the Park with George, and now in Passion, his voice seems perfectly constructed for Sondheim. There's a distance to his character which Elder uses to help navigate between the two women in his life. He and Leigh are absolutely ravishing in the opening number "Happiness", not an easy task considering that are both naked and frolicking in bed.

This production marks Leigh's Signature debut, and we hope she'll be back. Many of the scenes between her and Elder's Giorgio involve the exchanging of letters, which Gardiner has her sing off a Juliet balcony. Leigh's voice glides through the air like perfume, allowing us to experience how it feels to receive one of her letters.

A greek chorus of soldiers led by Bobby Smith are often commenting on the events in Giorgio's life. Will Gartshore, who was Count Magnus in last season's aforementioned Night Music, returns as Colonel Ricci, Fosca's cousin and Giorgio's superior. He's a commanding presence, albeit one with his own motives for Fosca's happiness.

A beautiful 14 piece orchestra, under Jon Kalbfleisch expert direction, bring Sondheim's lush score to life. As with any Sondheim musical, his work is a masterful marriage of music and lyrics. If Passion has any faults, it lies with James Lapine's book. The musical runs two hours with no intermission, and it feels every bit of that length. While a London production inserted an intermission, it's hard to see where one would be appropriate, or where cuts could be made. Watching Passion may cause us to squirm, but that's because there is so much truth in the emotions and anxieties being poured out onstage.

Finally, if there is one more reason to see Signature's production it is this, Passion is one of the least performed Sondheim shows. The musical holds the distinction of having the shortest run of any Best Musical Tony Winner. Yes, an occasional production pops up in New York or London, but Signature is giving you a reason to see this treasure in our nation's capital. It's another reminder of how incredibly awesome our theatre community is, especially to have Signature.

Runtime is two hours, with no intermission

Passion runs thru September 23rd at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets please call (703) 820-9771 or click here.

Photo: Steffanie Leigh and Claybourne Elder. Credit: Christopher Mueller.

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From This Author Benjamin Tomchik

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