Rebecca Naomi Jones
“Black folks passing for black folks,” rocker Stew exclaims early in his autobiographical musical Passing Strange. “That’s a trip!” And there’s plenty more talk of identity – in all its elusive forms – where that came from; just wait.
You see, this isn’t your grandma’s musical. Well, maybe just a little. It’s unfair to say that musicals of the past haven’t explored themes of identity. Shows like Hair and Rent, and even more traditional shows like South Pacific, have explored themes of race and sexuality before, but there’s something fresh about Passing Strange. It unfurls like a personal memoir on acid, personal for sure, but even more importantly acidic.
Stew, a solo artist in his own right who developed this show at the Public Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theater with his collaborator Heidi Rodewald, kicks things off with a bang by getting us in the mood. He and his red-hot musicians are going to “do a little play, since you paid for that, a play where this band tells you where it’s at.”
The band then descends halfway beneath the stage, and we’re launched into Stew’s tale of the “two-story black middle class dream” that was his childhood in L.A., where he lived with his single mother. Dissatisfied with the church – even his mother couldn’t find the right shoes to fit in – he takes off for Europe, specifically Amsterdam and Berlin.
It’s a roller-coaster ride of a story, with plenty of highs and lows. There is enough sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to go around, but the core of the story is Stew’s search for “the real,” for what transcends the everyday, be it God or love or both. Stew’s book for the show is a perfect blend of humour and poetry, chronicling his search with dignity, earnestness, and just the right touch of irony.
At times, Stew’s shtick as presenter of his own tale threatens to descend into self-indulgence. He’s no easy pill to swallow; his story is as jagged as they come, and his ego is big enough to contain it. But thankfully he peppers enough jokes and is self-knowing enough along the way to avoid any major pitfalls. For the most part, he’s an amiable presence.
Youth, the young Stew character, usually played by Daniel Breaker, was played at the performance I saw by lanky understudy Lawrence Stallings, who captured perfectly the wide-eyed glare of youth that the part requires. His raw energy finds a perfect calming foil in the dignified performance of Eisa Davis as Mother, a part she embodies with majesty and complexity.
Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, De’Adre Aziza, and Rebecca Naomi Jones provide support in a wide variety of roles, including the church crowd in L.A., his cafe groupies in Amsterdam, and the members of an artists’ collective in Berlin. They slip in and out of roles with ease, embodying existentialist church pianist Franklin, teenage goddess Edwina, avant-garde performance artist Mr. Venus, and lovers of Stew’s, including hippie Marianna and socialist Desi, each crisply defined by this skilled bunch.
The hugely talented cast is aided by a brilliant rock score by Stew and writing partner Heidi Rodewald, who also provides haunting backing vocals on several of the songs. There are touches of pop, punk, rock, jazz, blues and gospel, with a teaspoon of traditional theatre music for the squares in the audience looking for something more familiar. The band rocks out hard, and the sounds produced are unlike any heard before on Broadway. Though shows like Rent and Spring Awakening have postured rock ‘n’ roll aesthetics, Passing Strange has achieved it; this show is more a narrative gig in a proscenium than a traditional musical, and it’s just as well. It suits the story and its star.
With no big sets or ostentatious costumes, the mood is set largely through lighting. Soft colored lights on a white scrim during Stew’s youthful years give way midway through the first half to Kevin Adams and David Korins’s brilliant light wall, a circuit board of neon strips that perfectly reflects the colorful chaos of Europe, creating a sort of rainbow light district for the actors to inhabit. Kevin Adams, whose similar neon designs for Spring Awakening won him the Tony Award in 2007, creates, through his lighting design, a sense of space that complements the raw energy of the material to a T. He’s aided by David Korins’s simple set design, which keeps the action happily uncluttered.
Toward the end of the show, the light wall is covered again, as Stew returns home to L.A. to attend to personal tragedy. The vibrant lights of Europe are muted; he has come home, but he will never be the same. He’s been mixed-up, high, lonely, and in love, but what pulls him back into himself is the reality of loss. Stew discovers in the end that art is sometimes more real than life – an escape even – and his vibrant theatrical creation Passing Strange perfectly reflects that realization, a hybrid of forms for a man trying to fit into a hybrid world. What results from Stew’s funny, touching concoction is a musical that doesn’t strive to be anything but itself, it’s own unique creation. Musicals passing for musicals? Leave those alone. This one’s strange and beautiful and, above all, “real.”