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Passing Strange

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Daniel Breaker (foreground) and Stew (background)
Photo by Michal Daniel.

With a title drawn from Othello and a plot inspired by Candide, you might expect Passing Strange to be as steeped in the classical musical theatre as its genesis seems to be in classic literature. But no: This new musical co-production of The Public Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which just opened at The Public's Anspacher Theater, is resolutely a product of today, with all the potential pitfalls and promise that implies.

Luckily, it's the latter that ultimately wins out in this well-oiled, plucky picaresque from rock musician Stew (book, music, and lyrics) and Heidi Rodewald (music). Though it's both thin (on plot) and bloated (of running time; a solid two and a half hours), Passing Strange demands and delivers more than your average, illiterate pop-rock musical, of which Spring Awakening is the current, trendy example. It encompasses everything from the theatre of Bertolt Brecht to contemporary gospel and even European art-house cinema in telling its swirling story about discovering who you are through any and all means necessary.

Its particular subject is the ongoing punk-band masquerade ball of American life in the last third of the 20th century, focusing on a single African-American Youth (Daniel Breaker), reportedly based on Stew himself, who rapidly finds himself outgrowing his native Los Angeles. He's drawn to music to escape his emasculating Mother (Eisa Davis), and the religion of questionable value she's trying to pull him into: He heads first into the church's choir, then abandons it in favor of a life of sexual hedonism in Amsterdam and revolutionary hedonism in Berlin before being drawn back to the United States to face the prospect of becoming the man his mother always wanted him to be.

As with most tales of this nature, it's not what he learns that's of value (he doesn't learn much), but how he learns it. Annie Dorsen's production similarly invigorates this familiar, borderline exhausted, story with a concert-beat poetry aesthetic that finds four dynamic onstage musicians surrounding with their bodies and their accompaniment both the Youth and Stew, the piece's narrator. The music is trapping them both, though the Youth can still decide whether he wants to be constructed or destroyed by it: He has one chance to let his own view of himself, not that of his culture, his mother, or the women (De'Adre Aziza, Rebecca Naomi Jones) he romances on his trip, determines who he will become.

The score supports, rather than hinders, that journey, and in doing so gives Passing Strange a broader, more invasive scope than it might otherwise possess. The frantic revivalist rave-up that awakens the Youth's latent spirituality also oppresses him with its conscious conformity; a woman who gives the Youth the keys to her flat unlocks his dormant sexual yearnings with an insinuating and infectious soft-rock song about the little acts of kindness in life; the music makes an orgiastic acid trip all too real a way of dulling the pain, while a funeral scene's mock-dirge-like strains deceptively wallow in it.

Stew and Rodewald miss no aspect of the young-adult experience, and David Korins's rocking arena set and Kevin Adams's explosive lighting are key to establishing it within the proper adolescent perspective. But the show has little to say about any of these experiences, making it feel more like a diversionary outing than an enlightening one. There are times that's more than enough (the second act's Berlin sequence is a far more lively evocation of Brecht than the whole of LoveMusik, currently playing on Broadway), but you can't help but expect a show of this length to say more and, ironically, travel farther. The Youth toils, but eventually learns why he's here; the show about him struggles even more openly.

Eisa Davis
Photo by Michal Daniel.

Breaker, though an exuberant young actor, doesn't help by not conveying how his inner boy is constantly warring with the man who's trying to get out; everything that happens registers in him as inclusive, an odd choice that doesn't add much weight to an already feather-light show. But he's got some sterling support, especially from Davis, a slowly crumbling tower of strength as Mother, while Aziza and Jones as respectively the sexy and sensible sirens the Youth encounters and Colman Domingo is a hammy delight as the requisite free spirit forever shining the light on the Youth's reluctant role-playing.

Everyone, however, is a highly animated presence in a world that Dorsen ensures is never at rest. This is a place and time where, whether moving away from something or toward something else, or whether one's mask is pretending to be blacker, whiter, richer, or poorer than is actually the case, progress is all that matters. Thematically, Passing Strange spends just a bit too much time standing still, but its production and gently philosophical bent make it one of the most enjoyable theatrical perpetual-motion machines yet this year.

Passing Strange
Through June 3
The Public's Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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