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In an essay published this summer in The New York Times, Tony-nominated soprano Melissa Errico reflects on how, for more than two decades, she has been continually cast as fair ladies with little to no agency, starting with her Broadway debut as Eliza Doolittle.
“I have spent most of my life exploring classic musical theater roles for women, which often turn out to be, when you inspect them, well, problematic and, yes, misogynistic,” the actress writes.
Omitted from Errico’s astute reflection was Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, a 1994 musical now receiving a beautiful revival at Arlington’s Signature Theatre. In a 2013 off-Broadway production of the musical, Errico played Clara, the more voluptuous corner of a love triangle also involving an Italian officer and a terminally ill woman.
I had hoped Errico would address both her own role and that of Fosca, Clara’s insecure, melancholic rival. She does not, although her insights into Guenevere, Eliza, and Daisy Gamble are worthwhile, and can guide any viewers wrestling with a deeply unsettling musical like Passion.
Listen closely. Did the director and the performers dig deeply into the lyrics—even if all they found was a redeeming line or two—and strive to make these characters multi-dimensional heroines? And if they’ve accomplished that, is the whole show now worth swallowing?
Passion is, but just barely. Sondheim’s intricately orchestrated score, full of long, spun-out melodies, has saved this musical from being jettisoned by less chauvinistic minds. Signature’s design is stunning, the 14-member orchestra sublime, Matthew Gardiner’s direction nearly flawless, and the performances by female leads perfection.
Lingering discomfort audiences feel can be blamed on the writers, the mid-19th century patriarchy, and the 1981 film that served as Sondheim’s source material.
Natascia Diaz, the Italian actress who has become a regular at Signature, calls Fosca “the biggest, most challenging role I’ve ever done.” That’s apparent in both her Instagram captions and her performance.
The musical opens in a Milanese apartment, circa 1860. The captain (Claybourne Elder, last seen as a brooding Georges Seurat in Signature’s Sunday in the Park with George) and Clara (the golden-throated Steffanie Leigh) are lolling around naked, singing “Happiness,” Sondheim’s major-key ode to post-coital lovers, lying skin-to-skin, concerned only with the world between satin sheets. The nudity is unscripted, but not gratuitous. This is a relationship based on sex, and that sex is highly empowering for Clara. “I’ve never known what love was,” she sings before stepping confidently into a gorgeous sheer chemise.
When Giorgio first meets the pale, sickly Fosca, he’s been transferred away from his love nest to a remote mountain town. He’s greeted by anguished screams from his colonel (Will Gartshore)’s bedridden cousin, a woman “whose nerves are exposed,” a doctor tells him. But she loves to read, and so the captain loans her some Rousseau. They talk of French literature at breakfast, and soon are wandering arm-and-arm toward the gardenias, depicted in Lee Savage’s design as a flower wall hanging from the catwalks.
Fosca and the captain share an intellectual connection that he and Clara may not. That’s important to remember as she falls for him and becomes obsessed, to the point of stalking him on trains and cutting herself. “Loving you is not a choice, and not much reason to rejoice. But it gives me purpose. It gives me voice,” she sings.
Midway through the two-hour, no-intermission show, Sondheim clumsily tucks in an expository flashback explaining that Fosca was formerly married to an Austrian count who squandered her dowry and abandoned her.
Here is the problem with this backstory, with Fosca and with Passion: Her must-get-laid-before-I-die M.O. is more consistent with a desperate virgin than a woman previously married to a royal asshole. (Or faux-royal asshole, as it turns out he was not actually a count.) One would think the experience left Fosca hardened and more emotionally mature. Had Sondheim written her just a smidge less crazy, this entire musical would be more convincing, and easier to watch.
As is, there were multiple moments at Signature when audience members chortled in disbelief, particularly during the scene where Fosca dictates a fake love letter from Giorgio.
Letters are key to the storytelling, and Signature’s black box space has been arranged so as letters are received, the sender steps out to sing. The stage extends down the center of the theater, with risers on both sides and balconies at either end. Juxtaposing Clara and Fosca complements Sondheim’s lyrics, his two opposing depictions of desire.
In her final letter, Fosca opines that being loved has made her want to live. The song is in C minor, an odd choice for musical theater finale, and it ends on huge chord that’s not on the C minor scale. You don’t need to be music major to recognize the music as deliberately unsettling.
“All true heroines,” Errico wrote to close out her essay, come “to own (their) complexity.” Fosca does. Recognize that change, revel in this music, and Passion is still worth revisiting.
At 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington to Sept. 23. $40–$99. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.