Monday, May 19, 2008

Concept by James Baldwin

"Passing Strange" at the Belasco Theatre, May 17, 2008

(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

After an acclaimed run at Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre downtown, this rock cantata by the singly-named Stew has opened on Broadway to good notices. There has been much talk that the show hasn't "found its audience" yet, but based on the full house last Saturday night, somebody's catching on. I did track that the audience demographics were sharply different from that of the cast.

The story is Stew's memoir from high school through early adulthood. Stew, who serves as narrator and chorus in his own tale, frequently plays with audience expectations. Early on, he turns them on end when he interrupts his mother's (Eisa Davis) first appearance to correct the "black version" to his more accurate middle class upbringing in Los Angeles. His younger self, only described as Youth (Daniel Breaker) bristles under his mother's love and desire for him to find his way in the world. She manages to force him into the church choir, but he dashes off to Europe at the first opportunity to experience the world and find his art.

Amsterdam, with the hash/coffee houses comes too easy for him. He's taken under wing by the locals who open the world of love and sex to him. If it's art, doesn't it have to require suffering? So he then moves on to Berlin, "a black hole with taxis." Now living in an artists' commune of sorts, home continues to reach out to him as his mother calls. She wants him home for Christmas. He pulls away again, looking forward to a new kind of holiday with the angst-loving roommates. When he announces he has a new song cycle to present to them for Christmas, they all are going home to their families for the holiday. The message is that family, no matter how crazy they make you, are a part you can't remove from your art.

I found it interesting that Stew adopted Mr. Baldwin's concept of "passing" as the foundation for his show. At first Youth is passing as an angry young teen, rebelling against the mother who loves him unconditionally. In Amsterdam, he's passing as more sophisticated and worldly than he really is. In Berlin, he's passing as the angry, ghetto, black man, repressed by the capitalist white society of the U.S. All along, he's passing as a young man in denial of how important his family, his mother, is to him. Only when she dies, can he realize his wasted effort in all the passing of his life.

As an evening of music, it's a rock concert with all the overpowering amplification you might expect. Sadly, a lot of the story gets lost in the ear-pounding volume. Musically, Stew has found some theatricality, notably in a riff on "Tea for Two" as part of "We Just Had Sex." I also thought it interesting that of all the performers on the stage, including the musicians/backup singers, Stew seemed to exhibit the least visible passion when he sang.

The supporting cast of four, de'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones play the various people who came through Stew's life. Ms. Aziza, last seen in Playwrights Horizons' mediocre "Doris to Darlene" shows how the power of good material and a good director can bring out the best in an actor. Director Annie Dorsen has cleverly staged this cantata, creating mood and atmosphere with merely a couple of chairs. She gets remarkable performances from the entire cast, ranging from back-pew trouble makers at church, to Dutch stoners, to German nihilists.

I have described this show as a rock cantata. It's not a traditional musical in any sense of the word, even less so than last season's "Spring Awakening." (Kevin Adams' lighting does bear a resemblance to his Tony-winning turn from SA - suitable for the concert staging.) Story is told as much in song, divided between Stew's narration and the actors' performances. Still, I can easily see next month's Tony Awards honoring this production with Best Musical. (Don't forget Susan Stroman's "Contact" winning the award several years ago with hardly a song sung.) Though I haven't seen "In The Heights" yet, "Passing Strange" is the best new musical I've seen on Broadway this season.

Starwatch: Former Public Theatre director George C. Wolfe in the audience


Esther said...

Although the volume was a little too ear-splitting for me at times, I did love this cast, especially Daniel Breaker. He does so much without saying anything, just the way he slouches in a chair, for example. And I keep mentioning this, but I loved the way he leaped across the stage in imitation of a big Broadway dance number! Even though I loved the big dance numbers and big set from In the Heights, I have to admit that the music from Passing Strange has stayed with me longer and the story is a lot more thought-provoking. Plus, I liked the way the same actors played different characters at different points in Youth's life.

Vance said...

It was interesting to me that the audience demographics were opposite that of the cast and saddened me a bit too since Color Purple and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof seems to be doing quite successfully in bringing in a different demo to Broadway and wondering why they haven't run to Passing Strange in droves. It's funny that you noted the same demo differences too.

I guess the story in Passing Strange still probably resonates more with white middle America than black but then again, I didn't know what until I saw the show (and I follow Broadway) so how would the public know that?