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Fall for the ravishing music in ‘Passion,’ not the love triangle’s melodrama

Steffanie Leigh (Clara) and Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) in "Passion" at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller. (Christopher Mueller)

Do not, I repeat, do not drive yourself crazy trying to parse the bizarre relationship that gains heat between stoic, hunky Giorgio and relentless, funereal Fosca in Signature Theatre’s exquisite revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Passion.” As attested to late in the proceedings by Giorgio in the person of virile Claybourne Elder: “Love within reason — that isn’t love.”

Nope, there is little to reason with in the love that ultimately blossoms between Giorgio and Natascia Diaz’s obsessively watchable and gorgeously sung Fosca, clothed like a Mafia widow and enveloped in an eternal misery that would make Antigone seem carefree. And what of it? “Passion,” the alternately bleak and ravishing 1994 musical that won Sondheim and Lapine the Tony Award, is not explanatory journalism. Adapted from a 1981 movie, “Passione D’Amore,” directed by Ettore Scola, which in turn was based on a 19th-century story, “Passion” is about the ties to rationality that love severs.

Director Matthew Gardiner brings this most enigmatic and exotically romantic of Sondheim musicals back to Signature, where in 1996, Eric Schaeffer staged it to acclaim, and then enlarged upon the triumph with a production during the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Celebration that featured Judy Kuhn, Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker. That version, in which Cerveris imbued Giorgio with a magnitude of neurosis that affirmed how centrally “Passion” is about his actions, may have been the best that has been staged, even given the star-making performance of Donna Murphy as Fosca in the original production.

Elder, who played to exemplary results another George for Sondheim and Signature, the pointillist artist Seurat of “Sunday in the Park with George” in 2014, is a more conventional Giorgio — if such a term can be applied. His vocal skills are estimable, even if there isn’t much in his Giorgio to account for the pivot the character executes late in this intermission-less musical, from denouncing Fosca’s “endless and insatiable, smothering pursuit of me” to declaring that he is hers, forever, just a few short scenes later.

As I’ve indicated, though, allow yourself to be swept up in Sondheim’s swoon of a score — a series of gentle compositions that attempt a musical version of heavenly immersion — rather than the mundane mechanics of melodrama, to appreciate this remarkable work. It’s of no minor consequence that the show opens with Giorgio in bed with Clara (the wonderful Steffanie Leigh), the married Milan socialite with whom he is carrying on an affair, singing “Happiness.” The musical is obsessed with the mysteries of what essence of another human being makes one happy. And the notion is reinforced in the production’s physical dimension: a stage that divides the theater into two bleachers, and a beautiful set constructed down the middle by Lee Savage that’s crowned by a ceiling of what looks like a thousand wedding bouquets.

“Passion” revolves principally around the love triangle among Clara, Fosca and Giorgio, the Italian captain forced to leave Clara after being sent to an outpost where the desperately ill Fosca, a cousin of the post commander (Will Gartshore) is languishing. Diaz, a Signature regular, has in Fosca the choicest opportunity she’s ever gotten to show off her talents. She’s an actress of effortless intensity: that serves the requirements of Fosca well. A profound belief must be conveyed in a character who seems to have both an iron will and a bottomless capacity for humiliation. It is a performance of such admirable conviction that this actress wills herself to be of diminished allure. And her delivery of Fosca’s dreamy anthem, “Loving You,” lifts the evening into the clouds.

Costume designer Robert Perdziola ably dresses up the amorous alternatives Giorgio faces: Fosca in severe dark skirts, Clara in the effervescent frills of a heroine out of romance novels. (There’s even a hint of Fabio in the shirtless Elder). With the assistance of sound designer Ryan Hickey and a 14-member orchestra under the baton of Jon Kalbfleisch, Sondheim’s score and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations achieve the lushness the evening demands.

Giggles and groans arise from sections of the audience as the unlikely events of “Passion” unfold, particularly as Fosca makes herself more and more of a nuisance and Giorgio expresses the wish for the umpteenth time that she would just leave him alone. But as his resistance subsides, the musical asks, who are we to pass judgment on how the heart changes? Why would we resist investing in the decision by a handsome man to find happiness with a woman deemed less desirable than he? There’s ample time allotted on this musically satisfying occasion for us to reflect on the societal values that forge life choices, and marvel at the rich diversity of what beguiles each one of us.

Passion , music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; set, Lee Savage; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Hickey; wigs, Anne Nesmith; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein. With Lawrence Redmond, Bobby Smith, Christopher Mueller, Rayanne Gonzales, Gregory Maheu, Katie Mariko Murray, Ian McEuen, John Leslie Wolfe. About 1 hour 50 minutes. $40-$104. Through Sept 23 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. or 703-820-9771.