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Passion is an out-and-out stunner. A hypnotic, ferociously adult musical about obsessive love, the 1994 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Tony-winner was once rumored headed for the Kennedy Center with its original Broadway star, Donna Murphy. Instead, she’s returned to Broadway in a revival of The King and I, and to the great good fortune of a few lucky ticketholders, Passion has been rivetingly reinvented by director Eric D. Schaeffer and a mostly local cast in a colonnaded Italian grotto at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

Schaeffer’s version is not merely the most impressive musical production to be mounted by a D.C.-area troupe in at least a decade; it is, in several crucial respects, an improvement on the Broadway original—more balanced emotionally, better acted by its principals, and more relentlessly focused. Best of all, instead of one star, it has two. Trust me, no one is going to miss Donna Murphy.

As with all of Signature’s Sondheim shows (except Company, which was so clumsily designed that it seemed, even from the third row, to be happening at something of a remove), the evening benefits enormously from the intimacy of the troupe’s 100-seat auditorium. Watching Passion at Signature is like being onstage with the performers at a Broadway house, an arrangement that, in this case, enhances the already considerable claustrophobic impact of a tale about a smothering love. (Alas, it also means that tickets are so scarce that if you can latch onto one you should consider yourself blessed—then consider getting a safety deposit box for it.) Schaeffer emphasizes the space’s closeness by having the audience enter the auditorium through designer Lou Stancari’s breathtaking columned setting, with its lifeless winter vines and weathered terra cotta walls. You’re inside the production before it even gets under way.

Then, after a brisk military drum roll and a few clashing, dissonant chords, the lights come up on a blissful couple in bed. The year is 1863, and handsome army Capt. Georgio (Lewis Cleale) and his married mistress, Clara (April Harr Blandin), seem as mad about each other as two beautiful young lovers can possibly be. As their spirits soar, so do their voices in an ecstatic duet celebrating what they term a “happiness no one else has ever felt before.”

While the emotions Georgio and Clara share would pass for “passion” in most musicals, the authors of this one have something darker in mind: a passion that consumes its object and sears the soul. At the end of this first declaration of undying love, Georgio is transferred to a distant military base, there to meet Fosca (Anne Kanengeiser), the sickly, unattractive cousin of his commanding officer.

Where Clara is all mauve bustles and good cheer, Fosca is so funereal a presence that on those rare occasions when she totters into public view, Georgio’s fellow officers instinctively flee. Georgio, feeling pity for the drab, depressing creature he sees before him, hesitates…and is lost. After lending Fosca a few books and having her fall deeply, unrequitedly in love with him, he learns with growing alarm what true passion can be. In Sondheim’s lyrics, it is “love without mercy, love without pride or shame.”

At first, Georgio thinks he can handle the situation, but the more he renounces Fosca’s passion, the more resolutely she insists on its superiority. “Loving you is not a choice,” she sings in the most wrenching of the anthems Sondheim has given her, “it’s who I am.”

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Fosca’s relentless pursuit of Georgio is not easy to watch. As played by an almost otherworldly Murphy on Broadway, the character was one of the most intensely unattractive ever to seek empathy on a musical stage, and Kanengeiser’s performance is scarcely less forbidding. Hair tightly tied back, eyes hollow, skin as pale as her bed linens, Kanengeiser makes Fosca’s first entrance, clutching at columns for support, seem at once vulnerable and vampiric. Her voice a deeply resonant moan, she lets you see how Fosca might insinuate herself into Georgio’s soul, initially through pity, then through force of will. Having caught the actress’s delicious comic turn as mayoress of Pegasus Players’ Anyone Can Whistle in Chicago a few years back, I can vouch that there’s a brighter side to her nature, but it’s nowhere in evidence here. As Fosca’s obsession with Georgio grows—and particularly when she’s reading letters in which he professes his love for Clara—Kanengeiser makes the character’s pain so authentic that at these close quarters it’s nearly unbearable. Her voice may lack the rumble of Murphy’s on a few low notes, but her performance is, if anything, more nuanced and affecting.

Part of the difference is that her emotions bounce back from Cleale’s enormously appealing Georgio, while Murphy’s could only ricochet off Jere Shea’s wooden B’way performance. Comparatively slight and youthful, Cleale’s Georgio begins impetuously, wearing his callowness as a sort of emotional shield. But as the character gets in over his head, Cleale modulates brashness into fear and then fury on his way to a mature sense of himself and of the swirl of emotion he’s caught up in. It is Georgio who is most irrevocably altered by the passions in Passion, and—in addition to a rich fervent baritone—Cleale brings to the part both masculine vulnerability and what I suppose might be termed a noble sobriety. You can see him warming to this frightening creature and scaring himself as he does so. That he and Kanengeiser are so evenly matched makes the whole evening play more intensely than it did in New York. There’s a contest of wills here rather than a one-sided conquest. That means there’s infinitely more at stake.

As Georgio is being infected by Fosca’s feverish emotions, Clara is mostly standing on the sidelines, reading his letters, but she’s by no means a secondary figure. Blandin makes the sweet-voiced adulterer both grounded and empathetic (Broadway’s Marin Mazzie came across as a dressed-to-the-nines flibbertigibbet), which means Clara’s love for Georgio feels as much like the real thing as Fosca’s. It’s easy to understand why the poor guy’s so conflicted. If this Clara seems a cousin of Into the Woods’ Baker’s Wife, that’s not just because Blandin played that part last season at Signature. The two characters share outlooks and vocal registers. Should there ever be a Sondheim repertory company, they’d no doubt be played by the same actress.

Elsewhere, Signature’s cast is full-voiced and professional, if not always of the leads’ caliber. The soldiers’ maneuvers will require a bit more drilling before they’ll match the crispness of the starchy military uniforms Allen D. Smith has designed. (Smith has also created some exquisite character-accenting gowns in shimmering satins for Clara and dark wools for Fosca.) Michael Thornton’s Col. Ricci is all brisk concern for his cousin Fosca, Gregg Glaviano is a convincingly oily bigamist, and if Richard Henrich can make no more sense of the motivations of a meddlesome doctor who brings Fosca and Georgio together than his Broadway predecessor did, perhaps the part just doesn’t scan. (I’m told the role seems even less credible in Passion D’Amore, the film Ettore Scola based on Iginia Ugo Tarchetti’s 1869 novel, Fosca, and on which, in turn, Sondheim and Lapine based Passion.)

Jon Kalbfleisch’s direction of a splendid 14-piece orchestra situated on-high—in the rafters above the set—propels the evening with assurance and clarity. Sondheim’s songs in Passion, even when they’re at their most melodic, evolve very subtly from James Lapine’s dialogue and invariably slip back into it before applause is possible. They’re not even listed separately in the program. And since Schaeffer’s staging is designed to build emotional pressure rather than release it, patrons are trapped by the gathering emotional storm as surely as is the hero. In New York, noncognoscenti sometimes snickered when emotions went over the top, but at Signature the confines are just too close, and with the run already SRO through June 30, attendees will tend to be FOS—Fans of Steve—anyway.

Adding immeasurably to the local production’s impact is Daniel MacLean Wagner’s shadow-dappled lighting, which seems to leak into Fosca’s dreary domain almost entirely through slatted shutters and trellises. The candlelit darkness would be impossible in a larger house—patrons do need to see actors’ faces—but it’s ideal in so intimate an auditorium. Ditto the blessedly unaided voices that fill the auditorium with a purity rarely heard in this age of ever-escalating amplification. Speaking of escalating, it may be my imagination, but can’t Stancari’s intricately detailed setting (in which columns march upward left-to-right) be read as a deliberate in-joke riff on Adrianne Lobel’s equally gorgeous but spare New York original (with its left-to-right descending staircase)? Actually, who cares? It’s exquisite in its own right.

The same could be said for Passion itself, with its echoes of everything from Sweeney Todd (Schaeffer underlines one briefly Todd-ish chord progression with a staging filip during a nightmare sequence) to Sunday in the Park With George. Coming from Sondheim, Passion isn’t just a treatise on feelings with a ravishing score, it’s a revelation. This is, after all, the composer/lyricist who hid behind a sardonic view of love in the musical Company, examined the aftermath of affection in Follies, upstaged feelings with grand guignol in Sweeney Todd, and compared romance in A Little Night Music to a circus accident after which the management would have to send in the clowns.

In Passion, he embraces his title subject with a fury that should forever silence those who’ve seen his musicals as cool and distant—all intellect, no heart. The accusation was never really fair. After Passion, it’s preposterous.CP