An autobiographical rock concert/musical, Passing Strange is hardly your typical Broadway show. Anyone who goes expecting an old-fashioned book musical will be disappointed. But theater lovers looking for a bracingly original, high-energy show packed with talented performers will have a great time.
Staged last summer at the Public Theater, Passing Strange features book and lyrics by Stew (real name Mark Stewart) and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Stew also serves as narrator, guitarist, and singer. He opens the show with a casual greeting, telling the audience We're gonna play some music and see what happens.
That's a little disingenuous, since the musical does have a plot and dialogue. It's Stew's life story of growing up in a middle-class black household in L.A. and fleeing to Europe to find himself. Daniel Breaker plays the rebellious young Stew, and Elsa Davis is his mother. Preoccupied with status and keeping up appearances, she makes Stew go to church. There he meets a youth choir director (Colman Domingo) who introduces him to marijuana and falls for teen goddess Edwina (De'Adre Aziza).
Stew's church experiences inspire some of the show's funniest lyrics and dialogue. That church cakewalk is real unforgiving goes a lyric in Baptist Fashion Show. And Edwina, who is even more status conscious than Stew's mother, tells her young admirer You're not black enough for me.
While the book and lyrics are wry and self-deprecating, the invigorating rock score drives the show. The excellent musicians (Rodewald, Jon Spurney, Christian Cassan, and Christian Gibbs) are onstage with the actors. When the story begins, they are lowered somewhat into the stage but remain visible. It's a nice touch by director Annie Dorsen and set designer David Korins. (Korins and Kevin Adams' light wall at the rear of the stage also adds a striking visual element.)
But it's the music-along with the terrific cast-that is the star of the show. A first-act highlight is Arlington Hill, a gorgeous song that crescendos with the lyric Everything's All Right. Stew's time in Amsterdam provides four of the show's best numbers: Amsterdam, Keys (beautifully sung by Aziza, as Stew's roommate and love interest Marianna, and Breaker), the amusing We Just Had Sex, and the moody Stoned.
The second act, set in 1980s Berlin, includes a few abrasive songs, along with lengthy parodies of self-indulgent performance art. Fortunately, the story is engaging, as Stew falls in with a crowd that includes a militant essayist (Chad Goodridge) and a filmmaking feminist (Aziza). Stew tries to pass himself off as an underprivileged ghetto warrior until his Berlin girlfriend Desi (Rebecca Naomi Jones) calls him on it. You came here to be real, but you're not, she says.
When Stew returns to L.A. he realizes that life is a mistake that only art can correct. Passing Strange is clearly the older Stew's attempt to make art out of his youthful experiences-and mistakes. At nearly two and a half hours, the show could use a little trimming (particularly in the Berlin section), and some of the music won't appeal to Broadway audiences of a certain age. But overall Passing Strange is an exciting, exuberantly performed show that deserves to find an audience.