Monday, July 07, 2008

Review: Passing Strange

Working backwards through the weeks, I meant to finish an earlier stub about going to see the extraordinary Broadway musical play Passing Strange, which was my birthday gift from C, but rather than tag something onto the end of that, I'll try to restate it without covering a lot of the ground that numerous reviewers, on blogs and elsewhere, have already trodden. Its garland of nominations, for the musical play itself (because, really, it's nothing like most of the "musicals" you'll typically find on Broadway) and for its authors and actors, attest to its excellence, and having seen it and urged others to as well, I can testify that it's one of the freshest, funniest, liveliest, most provocative, smartest, and unforgettable musical stage pieces I've seen. The songs and the performances, by the entire cast, are still in my head weeks later, as is the underlying current of feeling, the riverbed of ideas and wit, that Passing Strange flows along. It's brightened my own work since I've seen it, and almost every creative person I know who's caught it talks about the sparks it's set off in them as well.

The musical dramatizes the trajectory, in vivid, song-filled tableaux, of the socially, culturally and aesthetically alienated Youth (an alter ego of the show's remarkable creator, author, lyricist, co-composer, and narrator, Stew [above, from], but played by Daniel Breaker), a native black middle-class Angeleno whose distinctive interests, musical and otherwise, set him apart, not only from other kids and members of the community, but from his mother (played by beautiful poet, playwright, singer, and actor--and CCite--Eisa Davis, in a superb performance). Or to describe it better, Youth's non-stereotypical interests, in rock music in particular, match those of many young black kids, only we rarely see them portrayed on the stage, especially in the sort of public forum Broadway affords. After engaging in other aspects of youth, like sex, drugs, and dreaming of becoming a musician and getting far away from home and finding himself, Youth flees (escapes) due east--beyond the prison of middle-class expectations and respectability that have, we learn, constrained his mother's and other in the community's dreams, and beyond the ocean, literally--landing in liberal Amsterdam, and then Berlin, whose ideological extremes are show here to great comic effect, where he interacts with various kooky characters who are richly depicted by the same actors who play his first set of adolescent friends and antagonists: De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo (who also appears on Logo's Big Gay Sketch Show), dreadlocked Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones. Wherever Youth goes, singing, dreaming, wrapping himself in irony and paper-thin confidence, searching for his authentic self and holding moments of emotional reckoning at bay, he conveys in marvelous songs what he's going through, though in Berlin, in hilarious, ironic fashion, he tries to gain currency from the sort of stereotypical identity he's been resisting all his life. Youth also is searching for family, his correct and true family, and the musical suggests that one's blood, at the end, is as important as constructed ties. Ultimately, Youth tragically realizes this too late, though in one of the most incredible scenes, Narrator (Stew) and Mother, from her grave, reconnect, and their plangent exchange, lands right in the center of your heart. "It's all right," Mother says, in what could have been a pat and flat resolution, but Stew repeats it, the two of them going back and forth until not only Stew, but you the spectator, believe them, and him. Yet the final note isn't just one of foregiveness, but of acceptance. Stew's mother had thought his quest was just a "passing phase," but as she and he both come to see, it's the truth of his life, and art, and that acknowledgement grounds the story in truly moving moment of truth.

In recitative fashion, the scenes comprise sets of songs that permit all of the performers opportunities to shine, in singing, acting, and, often enough in dancing, and they do. The afternoon we went, not a single cast member failed to touch the stars at some point, though Stew, Daniel Breaker, and Eisa each blew me away. Stew's guitar-playing and singing left me speechless more than once; the stocky, bespectacled Narrator, in addition to a stage natural's timing, has a voice to outshine almost any of the major rockers out there, and the show offers him many opportunities to showcase not only his singing and acting, but also his gifts as a songwriter and dramatist. In another world, this man might have been a major musical superstar. Breaker could have disappeared in Stew's shadow, but he succeeds in making Youth feel like both a parallel and a separate character. And Eisa! In addition to lighting up the stage when she's on it, her final scene with Stew was one of the musical's show-stoppers. You could probably map out the story's plot points after the first few songs, but Stew and co-composer and co-orchestrator Heidi Rodewald surprise again and again with the complexity of their writing, particularly in terms of lyrics, their knowledge and use of musical styles, and the integration of the funky, spunky music and drama. My musicological knowledge is minimal, of course, but I found so many of the songs' melodies and hooks more infectious, and certainly more creative, than the vast majority of what passes for popular music these days. The incisiveness, breadth and wit of the lyrics' references was also a wonderful surprise--these are some smart folks!--but it was never pretentious. (Even the show's title, which is explained in the accompanying Playbill, demonstrates this.) Instead, Stew's existential plight, rather than being merely enacted, is discursively--and lyrically--created before your eyes and ears.

What also ensures and furthers the musical's achievement is the inventiveness of the staging: using a minimal set with props, with a spaceship-like wall of multicolored, endlessly combinable neon lights as the rear wall, and bassist Rodewald, keyboardists Jon Spurney and Christian Gibbs, and drummer Christian Cassian on risers at the stage's corners, every scene strikes not only the right chord, but often a delightfully unexpected and novel one. One set of lights flare when Stew is in Amsterdam, another mark the passage and arrival in Berlin, and throughout, in coordination with the music, acting, and dancing, they help to create the rock-inflected, existential world Stew aims to portray. I left very thankful that C and I'd had the opportunity to see the show, but also with renewed faith about the possibilities for musical theater, and, dare I say it, Broadway. After the show, C suggested we say hello to Eisa, and we went backstage, got to praise most of the show's actors, and then spend a few minutes speaking with Ms. Davis. (Photo below). I heard recently that Spike Lee is going to film Passing Strange, but I recommend seeing it before the cast changes or...well, let's just hope that Mr. Lee in his groove when he's shooting this one. Thank you, C, and to the entire cast and crew of Passing Strange, thank you as well!

With Eisa Davis


  1. I am so envying you right now. Sadly the final curtain call is immediate. There has been no news about touring which is the only way I will ever see it.

    During the Tonys, I was so cheering for Passing Strange to win. When I saw the brother dance with and dip the dreadlocked brother on stage during the viewing, my heart went fluttering into the clouds with delight.

    Reading that you went back stage to actually meet the cast, well, I SO ENVY YOU!

  2. A story about a brother seeming out of place with his peers is a story I can identify with. My interest don't exactly mesh with most gay brothers or brothers period!