|PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG BLACK MAN
by Harvey Perr
published May 15, 2007
now playing at the Public Theatre
closes June 3, 2007
"Passing Strange," the brave new world of American musical theater, takes us on a madly radical route through the mind and heart of a round and bespectacled and slyly professorial fellow - eternally youthful but probably middle-aged - who goes by the name of Stew, who has the soul of a poet, the musical skills of a man of a thousand rhythmic possibilities, an authority so dazzling that it belies the fact that he is here creating his first theater piece, and an embracing humanism that defies resistance of any kind. And the journey he takes us on goes from the churches of Los Angeles to the arena of rock and roll and, of course, drugs, and onto an Amsterdam of open arms and welcoming sex and, of course, drugs, then to a Berlin that is part Kurt Weill and part Kraftwerk, a world of shocking confrontations and artistic presentations and, of course, drugs, and finally back to Los Angeles. Even more significantly, this voyage is a gold mine of different styles, musically and spiritually and intellectually and emotionally risky and downright daring, wildly satiric, surprisingly funny, always insightful, sometimes in broad brush strokes, sometimes sharply etched, and it leads, in the end, to a newly discovered depth of feeling. But this is where it was headed all along. And getting there is exactly what makes “Passing Strange” the most extraordinarily rich theater experience this reviewer has had in far too long. Run, as they used to say, don’t walk to the Public Theater. Wait too long and I promise that, if there is any justice, you will have to beg, borrow or steal to obtain tickets.
Stew, who wrote the wittily observed book and the gimlet-dry lyrics, and, in collaboration with Heidi Rodewald, the driving and eclectic musical score, serves as the play’s narrator, observing the excitingly talented cast as they play out his life, often with embarrassment at his own callowness but more often with warm pride at the process he wisely understands that young people must go through on their way to self-realization. His presence, which could have been an intrusion, is instead the work’s life force since it is his voice and his music which is “the real” that his actors are searching for. And the dialogue he carries on with his cast and with his audience has a music all its own. Daniel Breaker, the Youth who will be Stew, seems all goofy charm at first, but as he reaches maturity, transmutes that goofiness into a beautiful solidity. Colman Domingo, in a variety of roles, has some scene-stealing moments, particularly as Mr. Franklin, the fey church elder who introduces the Youth to the art of experiencing music more profoundly through the clarifying haze of drugs. High praise must also go to De’Adre Aziza, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Chad Goodridge for being able to glide so easily from intensity to playfulness in their movement, their acting, and, above all, their singing. Elsa Davis, in the pivotal role of the Youth’s Mother, is as rigid as we perceive mothers to be, and as voluptuous as mothers really can be. They make of the stage, with inspiredly loose help from director Annie Dorsen and movement coordinator Karole Armitage, a perfect place to inhabit for a couple of hours. And they weave in and out of all those subtly comic musical references which Stew has interpolated into the script with just the right blend of distance and immediacy.
And attention must be paid to Kevin Adams, who also did the inventive lighting for “Spring Awakening,” whose fascination with neon and fluorescence practically explodes to fruition in the wall of light he has designed with the constantly reliable David Korins, and with the myriad of magical moods he coaxes out of those lights.
Anyone who is a little bit in love with theater and who maintain a firm belief that fresh and thrilling things can still happen on its stages cannot afford to miss “Passing Strange.” Something new is passing our way. His name is Stew.