Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stew's Passing Strange Is Perfectly Seasoned

Photo: Carol Rosegg
(left to right): 1. Chad Goodridge, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingo, Stew and Rebecca Naomi Jones

Reviewed by Tony Vellela

Passing Strange, at the Belasco, cannot be neatly categorized, its story cannot be easily encapsulated, and its energy cannot be remotely contained.  Its title is lifted from Othello, another classic that involves the tortured journey of a Black man trying to live at odds with his identity.

Here are some of the reasons why Passing Strange is the Best Musical of the 2007-2008 season ...

It's not really a musical.  It's a lyric rap-inspired coming-of-age performance poem set to a dazzling array of musical styles. 

It's not the conventional 'coming-of-age' story.  Writer Stew takes his personal journey, that stretches back a few decades, lays it out in nostalgic detail, then slaps you in the face with its universal relevance.

You can hear it.  As Stew relates this indictment of modern hypocritical society with an intelligence rarely heard in musical theatre, the audio component of the performance is calibrated so carefully that it actually allows you to comprehend what is being said and spoken.  Kudos to sound designer Tom Morse.

Your imagination is permitted to use itself — not in the 'back wall painted black' style, or the' three chairs and a light bulb' style, but in the style of the most stimulating Expressionist paintings come to life.

It's genuinely emotional.  The stripped-down basics of this person's formative years, fleeing from an upper middle class African-American Los Angeles suburb  to Amsterdam and then Berlin during the post-hippie  [1978] era challenges the cynical, mocks the self-indulgent pseudo-sophisticate and inspires the innocent.  As Youth, the central character stand-in for Stew, adopts Zen Buddhist attitudes and angst-driven lost artist zeal, he embraces whatever happens to him or whoever happens to come to him, all the while seeking to catch the previous decade's spirit to Do Your Own Thing.  From The Glass Menagerie to The Fantasticks, the coming-of-age journeys that have endured are the ones that anyone can relate to, despite the specifics.  Youth is this generation's stage version of Francois Truffaut's  Antoine Doinel.   In this stunning case, Stew selectively pulls from his own CV of creative acts,  and guides us through the experiences and their interpretations as deftly as Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager.  This usually mishandled device succeeds here because we see him doing it to his younger self, and he lets us in on it, mistakes and all.  It's as poignant as Little Edie in the second act of Grey Gardens; telling us about the grim emptiness and emotional exhaustion of another winter in a summer town.

And since this is a musical, it must be emphasized that the musical elements [lyrics by Stew, and the composing shared with Heidi Rodewald],  which flows effortlessly and naturally from gospel, rock, rap and soul to jazz, funk and punk, is amazing.  Period.

When The Beatles released their animated feature Yellow Submarine in 1968, a popular parlor game (often chemically-enhanced) involved listing the acid-inspired sight gags and the visual non-sequiturs, missing the "whole" point — the synergy that all the parts resulted in a unified experience.  So, yes, Stew manages to weave in unobtrusively people as diverse as James Brown, Picasso, Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, Fellini, Hendricks, Camus, Hegel and James Baldwin, as well as My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz, Cabaret, and Bach fugues.  But the whole is a live stage experience similar to the culinary version of its key creator's name — a savory theatrical stew of sounds, sights, thoughts, moves, and most of all — words.  Stew's book and lyrics rise above anything else Broadway presents eight times a week.  He reports on the times when "You can trip all day till your mind just melts; makes Berkeley look like the Bible Belt." He chuckles recalling that "Molotov cocktails cops could handle; but performance art scared them to death."  He confesses that "my pain fucked my ego and I called the bastard art."

On March 31, 1943, the curtain went up on another revolutionary musical.  Instead of a big rousing chorus number, an old woman sat alone on a prairie front porch, churning butter.  Oklahoma! broke a good many conventional Musicals' molds, and with any luck at all, Passing Strange will do the same.  In case it doesn't, make sure you catch this one, because it's not the 'strange' that should be of concern, but the 'passing.'

PASSING STRANGE will perform Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8pm; Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2pm; and Sundays at 3pm at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street) on Broadway. Tickets are priced $111.50 - $66.50 - $36.50 - $26.50, and are available through Tele-charge at www.TeleCharge.com, or by calling 212-239-6200. For additional information, visit www.PassingStrangeOnBroadway.com.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies" His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

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