Monday, September 24, 2018

REVIEW: Passion (Signature Theatre)

Review of the Sunday, September 23, 2018 matinee performance at the Max at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia. Starring Natascia Diaz, Claybourne Elder, Steffanie Leigh, John Leslie Wolfe and Will Gartshore. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Scenic design by Lee Savage. Costume design by Robert Perdziola. Lighting design by Colin K. Bills. Direction by Matthew Gardiner. 1 hour 50 minutes. 

Production closed following the Sunday evening performance, September 23, 2018.

Grade: A

By most standards, Passion is a difficult, challenging musical. Over the years, the show has become, at least for this theater-goer, less of a challenge and more a thing of beauty. The production of this Stephen Sondheim masterpiece which closed last night at Virginia's Signature Theatre is a thoroughly engrossing, beautiful production, well-deserving of the critical adoration of D.C. area critics. It is the complete package, with the technical, directorial and acting elements all contributing toward making this a nearly perfect production.

The flexible configuration of The Max space had the seats arranged bleacher style in two sections facing each other with the playing space down the full length of the room (think football field with the wing space as the end zones).  That layout allows scenic designer Lee Savage to create atmosphere all around the audience from the grey wood grain floor pattern to the grey patina adorning the small balconies and spiral staircase at the ends to the lovely (and just out of reach) ethereal hanging gardens and flickering candle chandeliers across the ceiling. The straight, sharp edges of the set pieces are appropriately austere and evocative of a certain loneliness. The lack of ground level color in the set really forces the other elements to help focus on the people in the story.

Indeed, Robert Pendziola's suggestive-of-period costumes and Colin K. Bills' pools of light allow us to catch, at a glimpse, a lot of what we need to know about these people. The stiff uniforms, uniforms match the regimentation (and methodical drudgery) of the Italian soldiers, while the flowing, gauzy gown and robe, as well as a rainbow of lovely gowns for Clara, whose very name means "light," reflect both the free loving, elegance of married woman having an affair, while still being corseted by the oppressive treatment of women in the 19th century. The other woman of this love triangle, Fosca, whose very name means "dark," is dressed in severely cut black gowns that cover nearly inch of her skin. The use of light and dark creates mood and focus with Fosca's scenes illuminated by cold, focused beams, while Clara's world is bathed in warm hues that gently fade into the shadows.

All of these elements allow director Matthew Gardiner to create a moving painting of sorts. The juxtaposition of the regimental movement and constant symmetry of the soldiers with the fluid, wandering movements of the female rivals makes for an always interesting visualization of the constantly changing give and take of all of the forces affecting the lives of the central trio. Gardiner uses this staging prowess to guide a fast-paced, thoughtful production. Using a full 16-piece band to play Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations (under the baton of Jon Kalbfleisch), the score is as lush as ever, and the 12-member cast does full vocal justice to Sondheim's challenging score.

The entire company is marvelous. Standouts among the ensemble include Ian McEuen, whose operatic stylings create momentary comic relief, but are beautifully sung nonetheless, and Gregory Maheu, whose charisma brings comic flare to the role of the weary company cook. To be fair, his Count Ludovic came across as a tad too effete to my liking, but he was a captivating suitor anyway. Rayanne Gonzales and Bobby Smith sounded lovely together as Fosca's parents.

Of course, Passion is really a five character piece, and here all five actors do a brilliant job at bringing them to life. Will Gartshore, as Colonel Ricci, is a commanding presence, particularly in his final confrontation with Giorgio. He balances this nicely with a softer, caring way in his interactions with Fosca. As the manipulative doctor, John Leslie Wolfe is quite good at bringing out the initially caring machinations of bringing Fosca and Giorgio together, while at the end, when he realizes things have gone way too far, his backing away from things and threatening to pull rank has a sinister, very of-modern-time feel to it.

As Clara, Steffanie Leigh is a strong presence, finding believable ways to see completely in love and still strong independence - no small feat considering the epistolary nature of her role. It is very easy to see why Giorgio is so taken with her, and why there were audible gasps when she reveals that she is married and has a child. Claybourne Elder's Giorgio is marvelous. He exudes sexiness and strength - even his comrades are both jealous and smitten - while always creating a sense of honest humility. His portrayal is fully emotional - love makes a guy do crazy things, after all. And Elder's voice is just as marvelous; he sings the score with power and care. Natascia Diaz has the unenviable task of filling the famed shoes of the role's originator, Donna Murphy, and fill them she does. The tears flow, the fainting spells abound, and the give and take of Fosca wanting to die and to live is on full display. Diaz pecks away at this complicated woman in such a way that it is easy to understand and to believe each and every tick, scream and abrupt change of direction. Her voice is glorious, managing to be simultaneously powerful and frail. In short, she brings a captivating presence that is at once pitiable and maddening.

Each time I see Passion, another layer of this complex puzzle is revealed to me, which is why I return to it any chance I get. It will never be my favorite musical, but with productions of as high a quality as Signature's, I certainly appreciate it more and more.

(Photos by M. Schulman and C. Mueller)


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