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Monday, March 17, 2008

Theatre: Passing Strange -- Hmm This Isn't Like Those Other Musicals

Stew, the man at the center of the new Broadway musical Passing Strange is hard to untangle from STEW, the collective "afro-baroque cabaret" partly responsible for the show. The man is aptly monikered, having involved himself in rock albums, film, and now the stage along with his collaborator and fellow STEW founder Heidi Rodewald.

Passing Strange doesn't resemble much of anything on Broadway unless you count what goes down at a typical rock show at the Nokia Theatre. Some have pointed to Rent as a touchstone for the show but Rent is at heart a big old-fashioned musical that borrows some of its energy from post-Brill Building pop -- just ask the 12 year-olds who chant-sing the songs on the subway. Passing Strange is a different animal entirely -- a full rock band is onstage at all times, led by frontman/narrator Stew, punching out a set of excellent songs that are clearly very personal. These are fleshed out by an outstanding supporting cast who play multiple roles and take a turn singing here and there.

Unlike Rent which can run for eternity with cast swaps and simultaneously in San Fran and Singapore, Passing Strange needs Stew at it's center. I pity David Ryan Smith, Stew's understudy. It would be like understudying for Mick Jagger. Not that Stew is Jaggeresque -- he brings a droll seen-it-all tone to the proceedings. His voice and guitar playing are great, but what really works are his little asides to the audience and cast, some of which seem spontaneous. Even when the narrative is being carried by his actors, Stew is a presence watching the action, sometimes encouraging Daniel Breaker as a young version of Stew named Youth with a nod or discouraging him with a sad shake of the head.

That being said the cast, including Breaker, is wonderful -- ably fleshing out their multiple characters with aplomb. Breaker captures the arrogant curiosity of youth and well... Youth, without losing his essential sweetness and likability. de' Adre Aziza shines as a haughty teenage object of Youth's affection and later hilariously, as Sudabey a German avant-garde filmmaker who makes pornography that consists of two fully clothed men in business suits making deals. Colman Domingo has a rich voice and superb timing which is put to great use as the closeted choir director Franklin. Rebecca Naomi Jones gets to transform from a teenage "bad kid" to a sharp waitress and then finally the "den mother and social engineer" of a radical Berlin art collective.

If there is a weakness here it's summed up in the original title of the play, Travelogue. We follow Youth (and Stew's) search for "the Real" as he leaves his suburban Los Angeles home for the hazy good life in Amsterdam, and then the radical class and identity based political art of late Cold War-era Berlin. The observations made about all the locales are sharp and often funny. Youth's struggle to be himself while dealing with what it means to be black and to love and to be loved are all well-observed also. The last quarter of the play suffers a bit though as we try to make the connection between what Youth has learned about himself and how he gets to be Stew. It's more of a case of narrative petering out which is certainly preferable to it overstaying its welcome.

The staging is admirably simple and well-thought out by director Annie Dorsen, with a lot of clever interaction between the band and the cast. The terrific lighting design by Kevin Adams is notable for being able to suggest much about these different locales while also pumping up the music in traditional rock show fashion.

Passing Strange as a title refers in some ways to being able to "pass," as a member of a different race or sexual orientation or what have you. In a sense the play is a great concept album, "passing" quite successfully as a Broadway show. Now that's what I call thematic consistency.

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