By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
Whew! “Another op’nin’, another show…” not by a longshot! The opening number of Signature Theatre’s new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Passion” grabs you by the, uh, throat and won’t let you go. Spoiler alert: there is total nudity in the opening scene of “Passion”, tastefully done, so let’s just get that out of the way and move onto…ahem, more important things. Very important things like the story set in a remote 1869 Italian town, the music (oh, that sensuous, luscious, and sometimes difficult music!), the beautiful singing by the entire cast, the spare, but perfectly balanced staging, Matthew Gardiner’s brilliant, nuanced direction, the subtle, effective lighting, the sumptuous Robert Perdziola period costumes, the perfectly-coifed wigs, and that thrilling, room-filling 14-piece orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch. This production of “Passion”, and I’ve seen several, is the definitive one and you are going to want to see it!
Yes, I’ll agree with the naysayers about “Passion” being somewhat hard to listen to, but stay with me here. This production is so intimate, the audience is never more than a few yards away from the action on two sides of a runway-like stage with a sinuous staircase rising on one side and a generous balcony about a floor above the deck of the stage on the other side. Most importantly, at all times, you can hear every word of Sondheim’s brilliant rhyming schemes that push the story ever so gently, but firmly toward a surprising, but ultimately supremely satisfying conclusion.
If you haven’t heard the music before you arrive at the theatre (and I strongly encourage you to try to hear as much of it as you can beforehand), but if you haven’t done that, you will still clearly hear the fascinating story of passionate love between two adults who are having an illicit affair, a secondary story of Giorgio’s posting to a military outpost, and the all-consuming love showered on him by a sick and spectral-appearing woman, Fosca. Then you’ll experience Giorgio’s gradual pulling away from the easy afternoon trysts and into the wild, passionate embrace of Fosca. There is also a duel, death, all-consuming love and redemption. What more could you possibly want of an almost through-sung Broadway musical?
The big, major-key themes of the adulterous lovers, Clara (ethereal Steffanie Leigh) and Giorgio (dashing Claybourne Elder), are introduced early on, then, with the transition to sickly Fosca (velvet-voiced Natascia Diaz) and the dreary army base, the new themes appear in mostly minor keys, making them sound sad with a yearning quality, quite different from the initial ones. As Fosca becomes more dominant in Giorgio’s thinking, her music takes on the bright keys of Clara’s themes, in fact, she will in the end sing many of the same themes. By this time, you will be hooked! Trust me.
The following are perfect examples of Sondheim’s lyric writing you don’t want to miss and how the songs and dialog inextricably intertwine in “Passion.” In a couple of Giorgio’s deeply felt songs about Fosca’s love for him, Giorgio is experiencing something far beyond anything he had ever previously experienced, “Love without reason, love without mercy, love without pride or shame/Love unconcerned with being returned/No wisdom, no judgement, no caution, no blame.” And “For now I’m seeing love/Like none I’ve ever known/A love as pure as breath/As permanent as death/Implacable as stone.” Wow.
Are you intrigued? I hope so. Listening to Sondheim is not always easy, but rewarding if you are willing to invest a little time! In some ways, Sondheim’s music is much like the way Mark Twain described Richard Wagner’s symphonies and operas: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds!” And…sometimes, so is Sondheim’s.
One last tidbit in case you still need to be persuaded to experience this superb Signature Theatre production of “Passion”: I was told that in an interview with Charlie Rose some years ago, Stephen Sondheim revealed one of the reasons why this particular score is so romantic and lush. While he was writing it, he (Stephen Sondheim) had finally fallen deeply in love for the first time and he transferred those emotions into the sonorities of this lush, dark and beautiful score. Boom. Five big Zebra stripes up!
Cast: Natasia Diaz, Claybourne Elder, Steffanie Leigh, Will Gartshore, Rayanne Gonzales, Gregory Maheu, Ian McEuen, Christopher Mueller, Katie Mariko Murray, Lawrence Redmond, Bobby Smith, Harrison Smith, Eleanor Todd, John Leslie Wolfe
Creative Team: Matthew Gardiner, Jon Kalbfleisch, Lee Savage, Colin K. Bills, Robert Perdziola, Ryan Hickey, Anne Nesmith, Kelly Crandall D’Amboise, Kerry Epstein, Taryn Friend, Joey Blakely
Ticket and Performance Information: The show runs through September 23 and is 2 hours long without intermission. For tickets, visit SigTheatre.org or call 703-820-9771. Signature Theatre is located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va.