nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 13, 2007
Passing Strange may be the next bend in the road for American musical theatre. I hope so: it's the most engaging and involving new musical I've seen all year, and, with its eclectic mix of sources and allusions and its casual disregard for the "rules" of book-musical creation, far and away the most innovative.
It plays out on a square stage, exposed on three sides to the audience and backed, at the rear, by a gorgeous "light wall" (created by Kevin Adams and David Korins) that almost becomes a character in the show and that ranks as one of the most spectacular theatrical design achievements of recent memory. At each edge of the stage sits one of the four members of the show's orchestra (stage left is Heidi Rodewald, co-composer and musical director). Dead center, for virtually the entire running time, is author/co-composer/narrator/star Stew, guiding us through his remarkable show slyly and charismatically.
The story he and his musicians and castmates tell us is presumably autobiographical (the protagonist, billed simply as "Youth" in the program, is dressed as a younger version of Stew himself) and chronicles the pivotal formative years in the shaping of an artistic temperament. We meet our hero as a teenager, reluctantly being dragged to church by his long-suffering mother, and then receiving the first of several awakenings that dot the landscape of Passing Strange: much to his surprise, he discovers that the rituals of his middle-class Black Baptist church are not so different from the mysterious allure of great music.
"Youth" tries to find his calling in choir, under the wing of the flamboyant choirmaster (who is the son of the preacher). But soon he's moved on to punk rock; and then, after high school, to Performance. He decides that Europe will get him in a way that California seems unable to, and sets off for a trip that takes him to Amsterdam, Berlin, and eventually to himself. Passing Strange ends before you think it will, and we have only the evidence of the actual living Stew, mastermind of this remarkable work and much other music, as proof of our hero's redemption. But this is a show that riffs on and grabs at truth without worrying hard about realism; its authenticity and its messages reverberate in the bones more than they clearly announce themselves in the head.
It's very funny, very heady, very entertaining stuff. Stew and Rodewald's music draws from a variety of styles and sources, but for me it was all catchy and exciting; if they make a cast album, I'd want to listen to it. The primary dilemma of the story's main character is a search for fit: his musical proclivities mark him as "different" from his peers in his suburban California neighborhood; in Berlin, he plays up his American "Blackness" to find acceptance and validation as an artist. The show's most important idea is contained in its title: "passing" as anything other than who we truly are makes us, indeed, "strange" to ourselves.
Five remarkable actors—De'Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones—portray what feels like dozens of characters in this loose, smart tale. Daniel Breaker gives a tour-de-force performance as "Youth," demonstrating acting, singing, and hoofing that mark him as a star-in-the-making. Passing Strange is both crowd-pleaser (the entire audience was on its feet for the finale, clapping and stomping along with the music) and food for the heart and mind. Stew and his collaborators are onto something, and I hope they give us more in the future.