Weaving a hypnotic spell the exciting new musical, “Passing Strange, has transferred to Broadway after a well received engagement downtown at the Public last summer. Breaking with tradition the musical is an amalgamation of styles that fuses a variety of distinctive forms from cabaret to gospel into a consistently inventive blend that feels more like a high concept hybrid performance art/ rock concert than a Broadway musical. Whatever you call it, there is no doubt this is beguiling theater, a new form that refuses to be pigeon holed.
The semi autobiographical story is an artist’s coming of age tale filled with sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. The central character, simply called Youth (Daniel Breaker), is an African American Zen Buddhist living with his church going mother (Eisa Davis) in South Central LA circa 1976. In search of self knowledge and self expression through his music Youth will revolt from his middle class surroundings to discover “the real.” He will embark on a Bohemian journey though Europe to the free loving drug culture of Amsterdam and the dangers of Berlin to learn many of life’s lessons before coming full circle and returning home again.
All the while our narrator (Stew), Youth’s alter ego, will make rueful detached comments on the unfolding action. The smart juxtaposition of the impressionable Youth with the wise sage gives the evening a smart satiric edge. The balance of the earnest naive Youth with the all knowing narrator allows us to identify with Youth instead of judging him.
The set up is the perfect springboard for the relentless bombardment of bold pulsating songs by Stew, the one named singer/ songwriter. He composed the music with longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald. And the music gives the show a freshness that is constantly engaging running an easy gamut from rock, jazz, blues, punk, pop, funk, gospel and show tunes. The angry rebelliousness of some of the songs reminded me of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a downtown rock musical that covered somewhat similar territory.
Director Annie Dorsen helped create “Passing Strange” and her work is integral to the evening’s satisfying appeal. Working with choreographer Karole Armitage, she creates many moody sensual moments that meld beautifully with the pulsating heart and soul of the music giving the evening a rock concert feel that is constantly shifting.
Her small outstanding ensemble of performers, with several playing more than one role, is impeccable and often moving. Daniel Breaker is a magnificent stand out with sinuous wide-eyed enthusiasm as the Youth. Eisa Davis as his caring mother delivers a fully developed characterization that is both funny and moving without ever being sentimental. Colman Domingo is fabulous in two roles. He is outrageously jaded and right on as a foppish pot smoking choir instructor, Franklin, grounding his performance in the truth. And then he is chilling in a spoof of a crazed performance artist, Mr. Venus. Chad Goodridge is buoyantly winning, as well, turning in spirited interpretations. Both Rebecca Naomi Jones and De’Adre Aziza are memorable as Youth’s romantic interests.
Designer David Korins has come up with an ingenious device of having each of the four onstage musicians half-submerged in individual mini-pits that rise and descend. The effect separates them while allowing them to interact with the ensemble. And Kevin Adam’s elaborately sculpted colored lighting backdrop is spectacular, continually changing as the scene shifts from LA to Amsterdam and Berlin
There are no clear cut answers here, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. The title, which comes from “Othello,” seems to suggest that to experience different aspects of yourself while making art is “Passing Strange” and that there is a danger of losing one’s self along the way. The show’s philosophy seems to say what passes for love and art is often meaningless without true self acceptance. This universal theme is explored in numerous ways during the evening culminating with a resounding wisdom that is effectively original, but more often simply mesmerizing.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dans Papers
“Passing Strange” opened on February 28, 2008 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue. For tickets call 212-239-6200.