The term “rock musical” can often give this punk rock girl the heebie-jeebies. Most of what Broadway offers to the wah-wah pedal-inclined is either jukebox (Rock of Ages, Movin’ Out, Good Vibrations, Jersey Boys) or more traditional musical theater fare given a rock twist (Spring Awakening, The Who’s Tommy, Hair, Next to Normal).
The giddy exceptions to this are the propulsive Green Day musical American Idiot, currently playing on Broadway, and 2008’s worldly and exuberant Passing Strange, which is being revived in a synapse-singing production at Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage under the direction of Keith Alan Baker and Victoria Joy Murray.
You may wonder if Passing Strange would retain its magic without the charmed presence of Stew, the star of the New York production and the show’s composer and lyricist (along with co-collaborator Heidi Rosewald). Not to mention the exceptional Daniel Breaker, who played on Broadway the role of the Youth, the musical’s picaresque African American hero who discovers his identity—both geographical and personal—after losing himself in the sex, drugs and rock and roll-fueled art scenes in Amsterdam and Berlin.
Not that these two men aren’t missed, but Studio’s production proves how sturdily Passing Strange can stand on its own without its charismatic creator at the helm. In Washington, Stew’s role as the Narrator, a seasoned, electric guitar-playing alter-ego of the Youth, is performed with emotional fervor by Jahi A. Kearse, who sometimes is so invested in the show that the lines and lyrics seem to be pounding through his veins rather than coming out of his mouth. Aaron Reeder takes on the Youth role, imbuing it with the moodiness of adolescence coupled with an unquenchable innocence and openness.
The Studio production also has going for it an almost scarily talented ensemble of young singers and dancers, some of whom don’t even have Actors Equity status yet, as well as more familiar faces – Deidra LaWan Starnes as the Youth’s stoic and loving Mother and Jessica Frances Dukes , who plays a hash-smoking, free-spirited Dutch artist with aching vulnerability. There’s also a butt-kickin’ four-piece rock band with conductor Christopher Youstra on keyboards.
The title of the show comes from Shakespeare’s Othello, when the Moor utters these lines:
My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore, in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
The rock guitar-infused, sung-through musical – the music reminds you of singer Lenny Kravitz or the rock group Living Color, while the ironic and wise-cracking lyrics recall Sondheim with street cred – details a black young man trying to sort out the conflicting cultural messages coming at him from all directions and also dedicating himself to finding authenticity in his music and his life.
Raised by his religious Mother in solid middle-class comfort in South Central Los Angeles, the Youth feels oppressed by her insistence that he attend church and embrace the American dream of a nice car, cozy home, and consumerism. Grumpily, he accompanies her to church and finds God—a rock god, as chronicled in the electrifying gospel and blues numbers “Church Blues Revelation” and “Music is the Freight Train in which God Travels.” He also falls under the sway of the choir director (the effective Sean Maurice Lynch), a constricted preacher’s son who smokes pot and speaks in a jazzy patois of cultural free association.
Further estranging himself from the status quo, the Youth forms a punk rock band, The Scaryotypes, who make up in energy what they lack in talent. Determined to find what the choir director calls “le real,” the Youth follows in the footsteps of James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and Bricktop and flees America for Europe. The ingenuity of Passing Strange is seen in the goodbye scene with his Mother, which is not played as a tearjerking farewell ballad, but as a witty take on the foreign films constantly playing in the Youth’s head. Black and white images flit across screens at the back of the stage as the mother and son utter what sounds like dubbed New Wave dialogue.
Once in Amsterdam, the Youth falls into the city’s promiscuous, drug-hazy rhythm (personified in the sensual stirrings of the song “Keys”) and becomes exactly what he tried to escape in Los Angeles – a type, the quintessential black cool cat who represents “the real” black America. He further perfects his ghetto schtick in Berlin, as he joins a group of avant-garde artists/anarchists called Nowhaus—their snarling, assaultive posturing is captured in the hilarious “Surface,” where a stilt-walking European clown named Mr. Venus (another star turn by Mr. Lynch) shrieks “What’s inside is just a lie” over and over while the white noise blares.
The Youth’s punky girlfriend Desi (the searing Deborah Lubega) tries to get him to drop the act—which he portrays with caustic vigor in the mock-cakewalk “The Black One”—but he’s can’t bring himself to face the truth about himself or what he’s doing. Finally, he returns home, stuffed with experience but little the wiser—there is this wonderful, heartbreaking moment when the Narrator sings of the inevitable fallout that comes from a life based on a single impulsive decision of a teenager.
It takes a confrontation with the Narrator, a shivery scene where youth and older age speak to one another about love, art and regret, for the Youth to begin to find his true musical voice—one that reconciles the past with an tentative future.
Passing Strange presents this portrait of the artist as a young man with wryness and a big heart, a combination that makes the rock musical genre suddenly capable of more than just capturing the geezer zeitgeist of baby boomers.
by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
directed by Keith Alan Baker and Victoria Joy Murray
produced by Studio Theatre
reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Passing Strange is currently scheduled to run thru August 8, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.