Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Passing Strange
Playhouse on Park
Review by Zander Opper | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's reviews of Peerless and Measure for Measure


Darryl Jovan-Williams and Eric R. Williams
Photo by Rich Wagner
Full disclosure: When I saw Passing Strange (book and lyrics by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald) on Broadway in 2008, I found it to be almost like torture to sit through. Listening to the cast album didn't help matters much. In preparation for seeing the regional premiere production at Playhouse on Park, I rented the Spike Lee-directed film of the original Broadway production and, while I found the show a little easier to take on video (with close-ups), it was still something of a chore to get through.

So, it was with some trepidation that I approached this production. I still find the book and score to be problematic, and Passing Strange will never be among my favorite musicals to see. Of course, opinions on this or any musical are purely subjective, and there have been a great number of reviewers and audience members who loved this show in its original production. Putting aside my feelings about the musical itself for now, I'd like to focus on what Playhouse on Park brings to this production.

Seeing the production at Playhouse on Park, with its talented cast, fine direction and choreography, and a more attractive set than the one that the Broadway production featured, I found the show somewhat more enjoyable. The performers bring a lot of heart to this musical, especially Eric R. Williams and Darryl Jovan-Williams in the leading roles. Director Sean Harris and choreographer Darlene Zoller, who did such a great job with Playhouse on Park's production of Hair, keep the cast moving all over the theater and the overall staging is quite exuberant. In general, this cast and creative team make the best possible case I can imagine for Passing Strange.

One of the chief pluses is the overall set and lighting design. The original Broadway production looked, more or less, like a rock concert. In this staging, there is more of a setting for the actors to perform on and, even though there are still musicians onstage throughout, the show looks and feels more naturalistic, which gives weight to the plot and the characters. The fine scenic design is by Emily Nichols and Marcus Abbott contributes the effective lighting design.

And then there are the actors, who are uniformly superb. Darryl Jovan-Williams, as the narrator, sings wonderfully and moves smoothly in and out of the action. As the character of the "Youth," Eric R. Williams is very appealing, with a super singing voice and a commanding onstage presence. Famecia Ward is extremely touching as his mother, and Karissa Harris, Garrett Turner, Skyler Volpe, and J'Royce shine in a variety of roles.

The director has done a fine job of staging the show, and he manages to tone down some of the more self-indulgent moments that I remembered from the Broadway production. Passing Strange is chiefly about the character of the "Youth" trying to find his way in the world (including visits to Amsterdam and Berlin), and there is a wonderful and moving moment toward the conclusion when it seems that he has, at last, found where he belongs.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Passing Strange overall, but I'm pleased to find that Playhouse on Park has made the musical much more appealing.

Passing Strange continues performances at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through December 20, 2015. For tickets, please visit www.playhouseonpark.org or call the box office at 860-523-5900, Ext. 10.


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