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A CurtainUp DC Review

Loving you is not a choice, it's who I am. — Fosca to Giorgio.
Natascia Diaz as Fosca and Claybourne Elder as Giorgio (Photo by Margot Schulman).
The mood is set even before the play begins. With the audience seated on both sides of an oblong stage made of interwoven planks, lit (by Colin K. Bills) in various colors, and balconies on either side, a simple elegance is created. Above, hanging from the flies are chandeliers and curtains of dried flowers. A perfect backdrop for Passion, the rarely produced Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical, under the excellent direction of Matthew Gardiner, now enjoying a short run at Signature Theatre.

The story, based on the film Passion d'Amore, involves Fosca (Natascia Diaz) who loves Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) who loves Clara (Steffanie Leigh). In an opening scene Clara and Giorgio are enjoying lustful sex, although Giorgio seems mildly distracted. He has, after all, to tell his lover that he has received orders to report for military duty in five days. They vow to correspond daily. Giorgio leaves and Clara is distraught.

At the military post Giorgio joins his comrades at the dinner table. (The props consist of a bed, a dining table and a writing desk.) Loud, ominous moans from above disturb the meal. Colonel Ricci (Will Gartshore, performing well, as always) explains that the anguished sounds come from his cousin, the unattractive and sickly Fosca who lives upstairs. The assembled military men are so used to such noises that they ignore them, except for Colonel Ricci.

As Fosca descends the spiral staircase slowly and quietly she sees Giorgio and is immediately obsessed. Her desire leads her to transition from a shut-in to an obsessive, compulsive woman who yearns for Giorgio. His sympathy for the poor woman is admirable. At first, it is no more than sympathy.

Slowly, as the play enfolds, Giorgio, in spite of himself, is drawn to the needy Fosca. In song and in speeches, many of which are based on the correspondence between Clara and Giorgio, discussions follow about the meaning of love, different kinds of love, passion and compassion.

There are several reasons why Passion is so rarely produced. It is dark and not everyone's cup of tea. The music is far from simple, ditto the lyrics, but the most difficult challenge is casting, particularly for the role of Fosca. In that role, Natascia Diaz gives a magnificent performance. Her voice is strong and impassioned and her acting is tightly controlled and endearing. Having been fortunate enough to see Ms. Diaz's lively, cheeky and often comic Anita in Signature's production of West Side Story, I am impressed by this actor's stunning versatility.

Steffanie Leigh brings her beauty both in body and voice to the role of Clara. Less impressive is Claybourne Elder's Giorgio. He seems to be going along to get along rather than exhibit the yearning displayed by the very different women who pursue him.

Two vignette players bear mentioning: Gregory Maheu's Ludovic, the con artist who loads on the charm, is amusing and the operatic solo by Ian McEuen as Lieutenant Torasso is a vocal highlight. All the voices are pleasing particularly when they are harmonizing. Jon Kalbfleisch's 16-piece orchestra, seated above the stage and out of the audience's view create an unimpeded surround-sound musical environment.

The players are fortunate to wear the exquisite costumes designed for them by Robert Perdziola. Fosca's dresses are subdued in color while Clara's consist of transparent negligee to formal attire in a palette that ranges from delicate aqua to a light violet. The military uniforms suggest authority, as does the straight-backed posture of the men who wear them. Yet another wise choice by the very talented director Matthew Gardiner.

Loving this Passion is not just a choice, it is a magnificent gift to its audiences.

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Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Scenic Design by Lee Savage
Costume Design by Robert Perdziola
Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills

Cast: Natascia Diaz (Fosca); Claybourne Elder (Giorgio); Will Gartshore (Colonel Ricci); Rayanne Gonzales (Fosca's Mother); Steffanie Leight (Clara); Gregory Maheu (Sergeant Lombardi/Ludovic and Georgio u/s); Ian McEuen (Lieutenant Torasso); Christoper Mueller (Private Augenti/Dance Captain and Colonel Ricci u/s); Katie Mariko Murray (Mistress and Fosca/Clara u/s); Lawrence Redmond (Lieutenant Barri and Doctor Tambourri u/s); Bobby Smith (Major Rizzolli/Fosca's Father); Harrison Smith (Swing); Eleanor Todd (Swing); John Leslie Wolfe (Doctor Tambourri).
Running time: 2 hours, no intermission.
Signature Theatre,; August 14 through September 23, 2018.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson at August 22, 2018 performance.

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