IT WOULD BE ‘STRANGE’ TO PASS ON THIS ONE
by Kestryl Lowrey
published March 13, 2008
now playing on Broadway at the Belasco
I’ll confess that I am sometimes concerned after seeing a show that I
actually, deeply, enjoy and appreciate on Broadway. Perhaps it’s because I worry that the
attention, glamour, and money will corrupt an admirable piece of theatre into standard consumable fare. Perhaps I’m just a miser who would like to guard this city’s jewels from the grubby hands of tourists, even
though it excites me to see artists doing new and innovative things and receiving broad acclaim and recognition (and standing ovations!) for
So goes my predicament with Passing Strange. If I write the review that the show (and, more specifically, Stew, the creator/narrator of
the piece) deserves, am I contributing to broader forces that could turn a show I admire into something I dislike, dooming it to audiences
looking solely for light entertainment? Here, those familiar with the show may note a similarity in my own comments to the perspective of
The Youth (Stew’s somewhat autobiographical teenage counterpart), who disdains much of his familiar world in his pursuit of art and the
Enough self-absorbed introspection; let’s talk about the show. Stew, and his
long-time collaborator Heidi Rodewald, have created a piece which is part rock concert, part musical, part teenage angst, and all
theatre. Feeling stifled by his middle-class African-American upbringing, the Youth sets out
on a journey to experience life and create art as a young black musician. He breaks away from
his mother and in
Europe begins to claim oppression he never experienced as his own, slipping away from reality as he desperately tries to grasp what he calls “the
Real.” All the while, Stew is present on stage, a narrator cum guide with dry observations and a sharp wit, needling his youthful trials, tribulations and (most
Passing Strange is the
Broadway debut for several members of the ensemble, though the energy, enthusiasm, and talent makes this truth surprising, if not timely.
The production just moved to Broadway from it’s New York debut at The Public Theater last spring
with its original cast intact, doubtlessly giving a much-deserved springboard to the careers of de’Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge,
and Rebecca Naomi Jones. Singling out one of this group for higher notice would be unfair to the
capabilities of the others, when all display such vibrancy, humor, versatility, and depth.
Outside of the shifting roles of the ensemble, Daniel Breaker and Eisa Davis deserve particular note as Youth and Mother,
respectively. Breaker’s self-absorption and insatiable appetite for the real world is beautifully
counter-pointed by Davis’ depthless love, support, and stoicism. Knowing that the piece is
something of an autobiography, one wonders if here Stew may be tipping his hat to his mother in a way that he neglected to as he went through
his own growing pains.
To call Passing Strange a rock and roll musical would be to ignore the range of musical
styles and formats which appear within the piece. Led by Stew and Rodewald, the on-stage band
shifts tones and tempos, as the music evokes Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Los Angeles again. Unlike the majority of musicals, here, the band is center stage, evoking more a rock concert than a play
at first. Luckily, under Annie Dorsen’s skilled directing eye, the performers weave in and
around through the musicians, ultimately granting a necessary sense of integration and unity to the piece. At times when the band might become distracting to the action, the musicians sink on platforms (while
playing, I should add) until their shoulders are level with the stage. We are aware of their
presence, but not annoyed by it. My only complaint concerns not the music specifically, but
rather, the levels in the mix. There are times when it is difficult to decipher the vocals,
and it seems difficult to believe that this was always an intentional, artistic choice.
A massive light sculpture dominates the upstage wall, serving as set
and illumination (created in collaboration by lighting designer Kevin Adams and set designer David Korins). Shifting through moods and locations, the lights are evocative, mostly without becoming overbearing (though
a few moments left me squinting). Perhaps what is most impressive about the lights is that, while
they are striking, they do not fall to the frequent risk of light walls and overpower the rest of the production. Instead, they set the stage,
and allow the performers to dominate it.
I could continue to discuss minutiae of the production, but the truth is that, like the Real that the Youth (and Stew) strives
for, I can’t encapsulate it all in words. Like most journeys, this one is best if you experience it yourself.
kestryl.lowrey @ stageandcinema.com