Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of The Humans
Passing Strange is a coming of age story about a young black man from suburban Los Angeles whose frustration with the mundane aspects of everyday life and love of music lead him on a quest to discover something "real." The unnamed youth leaves his mother and his church for Europe, traveling first to the bohemian paradise of Amsterdam and later to the nihilistic anger of Berlin. The play is thematically rich, raising meaningful questions about the purpose of art, the interplay between racial identity and individual authenticity, and the importance of familial love. The musical numbers that drive the show's action get off to a bit of a slow start. "Baptist Fashion Show" is clever, but we never get a number with the strength and joy of a gospel choir. Fortunately, the score picks up quickly and never backs down again.
Narrator Kris Coleman's powerful vocals and easy rapport with the audience are irresistible, but it is Jamar Williams' exhilarating performance as the story's youthful protagonist that has the greatest impact. Convincingly awkward as a teenager being dragged to church by his mother, the Youth metamorphosizes over the course of the play. In the second act's most powerful musical numbers "Identity" and "The Black One," Williams performs with an astonishing intensity that leaves the audience breathless. Kimberly S. Fairbanks gives an equally intense though necessarily more restrained performance as Mother. Sexually charged without being slutty or vapid, Savannah L. Jackson is pitch perfect as Marianna. Taysha Marie Canales is grounded as Berlin love interest Desi. Anthony Martinez-Briggs and Lindsay Smiling give physically demanding and emotionally fierce performances in a variety of roles.
Rounding out the cast is a talented and energetic four-piece band. Director Tea Alagic places the band on stage and, with the aid of Scott Pask's sparse set and Thom Weaver's dramatic lighting design, blurs the line between concert and musical theater. The result is often thought provoking, occasionally moving, and always a damn good time.
Passing Strange, through February 18th, 2018, at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets call the box office at 215-546-7824 or visit www.wilmatheater.org.