Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 28, 2008
Passing Strange Book and lyrics by Stew. Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Directed by and created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen. Choreography by Karole Armitage. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Tom Morse. Music supervision and orchestrations by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Starring Stew, with de'Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Daniel Breaker.
The source of this glorious cataclysm, deceptively titled Passing Strange, is not the shrieking, vacuous enterprise lesser musicals might lead you to suspect. Bucking traditional trends with a glint and a grin, it's smart, taut, and packed with the poetry and wit its Shakespeare-derived title promises. It rattles your bones and seizes your soul in ways that no recent Broadway rock musical, including last season's Spring Awakening, could even conceive.
Most surprisingly, it's all originated from a short, fat, bald man in his mid 40s. Going by the improbable name of Stew, the bookwriter, lyricist, co-composer (with Heidi Rodewald), and narrator looks like a walking identity crisis. He's dressed in a shiny black suit, a crimson button-down shirt, and thick-rimmed glasses, the eternal hipster and the eternal outsider rolled into one. First impressions suggest that a man this outwardly conflicted is the last person who should lecture you about anything.
Let appearances deceive you at your own doom. Locked inside man and show are dazzling realms of experience that evoke the pain of discovering too late that the place you couldn't wait to escape is where you most needed to be. Passing Strange might be the story of Stew as an angry young black man grappling with identity, but his story of escaping South Central Los Angeles as a teen to find himself and his sound in Europe is that of anyone who's ever struggled to come into his own skin.
When Stew holds a microphone, it's clear he's no longer struggling. He and his onstage band (including bassist Rodewald) prove ideal guides for this tumultuous personal picaresque, linking the 1970s and 1980s to today through the styles Stew established. As his younger self (known only as Youth and played with a beguiling litheness by Daniel Breaker) rebels from his mother (Eisa Davis, filling out her role with heartbreaking warmth) and flees to the Netherlands and Germany in search of his blackness and his humanity, Stew interrupts, corrects, and explodes the story with the knowledge and music that only intervening decades of life could grant.
Sometimes this shatters conventions, as when an actual religious experience interrupts a gospel number. It's usually quite funny, whether involving a disintegrating church choir in L.A. or a band of performance artists in Berlin. It's occasionally even moving, with Stew delivering confidential speeches to the audience that place all the rollicking events in a more sober context. The more the past parties with the present, the more boundaries blur between the two - and between the stage and the audience.
Never is this clearer than in the song "Keys," when the Youth's trip to Amsterdam lands him in the room and bed of a young hippy named Marianna (the stunning de'Adre Aziza). Hooking onto the ultimate form of "Welcome to Amsterdam," Stew and the band respond to the Youth's social and sexual awakening with such progressive, all-encompassing force that everyone in the house is fused into the most ecstatic conflagration Broadway has seen in years.
The size and scope of this sunburst-bright scene are also new to the show which, like the canniest, has only expanded for Broadway. In its first New York production last spring at The Public Theater (it had previously been seen at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre), Passing Strange traded too much on its eccentricities, saying little, but with savage style. Director Annie Dorsen and choreographer Karole Armitage have honed the action down to a finer point, and Stew has refocused the book, losing some gems (particularly in the second act, including a marvelous mock-Brechtian Berlin scene), but giving everything a more discernible sense of direction.
One absence is more acutely felt. Off-Broadway, the show boasted an intimacy that tamed its wilder compunctions; now, in a larger proscenium house, they're being given full, fierce rein. That makes this version more exciting, but also more remote. A reconfigured finale, which thrusts Stew to the forefront just when the Youth should be arriving there, does little to discourage this.
But because Stew and Breaker are so innately gifted at melding the spiritual with the secular, this is hardly disastrous. Each evolves into the other, Breaker gradually assuming Stew's confidence and Stew rediscovering the awestruck innocence he once couldn't wait to lose. Both are superbly matched now in ways they weren't at the public, with Breaker having acquired the show-carrying charisma he once lacked and commanding the stage with the sinewy effervescence appropriately heralding the arrival of a major new musical star.
Make that two. Stew may be a Broadway neophyte, but it's hard to imagine a more impressive debut. As a writer and an actor he unlocks frightening truths about growing up and growing out, while never succumbing to the clichéd answers or prosaic pronouncements that pollute so many lesser coming-of-age-and-rage tales.
Passing Strange is so fresh and so unique, in fact, it's possible its author isn't aware how revolutionary it is on the Broadway landscape; Stew has admitted in interviews to a lack of familiarity with musicals. The results show that this only means he didn't know which rules he broke and which he wrote while creating a work that's half concert, half confessional, and all electrifying theatre.