Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Passing Strange is an Impressive Musical

Also see Richard's reviews of Doubt and Convenience and The Little Foxes

Daniel Breaker (foreground) and Stew
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the brilliant new musical Passing Strange with music by Stew and his long time partner Heidi Rodewald. This is a co-production with the Public Theatre of New York. The engaging musical runs through December 3rd on the company's Thrust stage. Following the engagement the sets, costumes and equipment along with reams of notes about the show will be packed for shipping to New York where it will play at The Public Theatre, beginning in January 2007.

Passing Strange is the Rent of the 21st century. It is technically exciting and full of captivating, energetic songs ranging from gospel to rock to soul to Afro-baroque. There is a wonderful number to a cheeky cha-cha beat called "We Just Had Sex," and the song "Keys" is in a Jacques Brel style. Stew and band conclude with a German oompah-pah drinking song that celebrates life for the moment.

The word "passing" has deep historical meaning for any African-American. In a recent interview, Stew said his grandmother was light enough to pass. "The kid in this play discovers there's more to passing than just black folks passing for white." The term "passing" also has to do with time passing.

Passing Strange is the story of Stew's own coming of age from the mid '70s to the early '80s. His alter-ego is an unnamed black teenaged songwriter (Daniel Breaker) living "between the freeways of Los Angeles." He has no interest in going to his mother's (Elsa Davis) Baptist Church since the boy thinks he is a Buddhist. However, to appease his over-protective mother he goes to the local church where he meets the leader of the choral group, Franklin (Colman Domingo), a flaming queen who likes to smoke a lot of weed when away from his duties.

The youth has a drug-induced epiphany and leaves his smothering mother. He goes on a Candide-like journey to Amsterdam where he meets Edwina (de'Adre Aziza) at a local hash bar. She introduces him to a celestial paradise of psychedelics and free love. Like Candide, he believes that this is the best of all possible worlds. The youth still seeks nirvana and decides to go to Berlin where he becomes part of an anarchist collective. There he meets the anarchic radical Desi (Rebecca Naomi Jones) who gives him a deeper meaning of life. He finally finds his true nature when he returns to the streets of Los Angeles.

The show's six actors are African-Americans who are superb in each of their roles. Some double as white Europeans, which is very effective. Daniel Breaker (New York Fabulation, Well and Comedy of Errors) gives a charismatic performance. His jaunty movements remind me of a young Ben Vereen. He has a golden voice that rocks the house.

de'Adre Aziza (Classical Theatre of Harlem) and Rebecca Naomi Jones (New York Caroline or Change, Fallen Angel) are dynamic singers. Both have sizzling voices in all of their songs. Coleman Domino (Berkeley Rep productions of Haroun and the Sea Stories and People's Temple) is a joy to watch as he portrays many characters, including the over the top gay leader of the church choir. Eisa Davis (many performances in the Bay Area) gives a consummate performance as the youth's mother. She has a bell clear voice when singing. Rounding out the acting group is Chad Goodridge who gives a first rate performance as Hugo and Terry. He also has great vocal chops and moves when dancing.

Singer and guitarist Stew has a strong presence with his dynamic smoky voice. His winning personality is a positive feature in this terrific two hour and forty minute show. He fronts an extraordinary ensemble rock group that consists of Jon Spurney, Marc Doten, Russ Kleiner and Heidi Rodewald. They rock on such songs as "Come Down Now" and "Love Like That," which has a Joni Mitchell style.

Director Annie Dorsen and set designer David Korins have designed a simple but go-getting complex set. When entering the thrust stage of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it looks like the audience will see a concert. There are stands for two keyboardists, a drummer and Rodewald on bass. These are on platforms that sink into a separate mini-orchestra pit, and the actors move about them. When the youth goes to Europe, a rear curtain falls to reveal a brilliant wall by lighting designer Kevin Adams of flashing, beaming and glowing orange, blue, green, yellow and white that is awesome. The effect is spectacular.

Passing Strange plays through December 3rd at the Berkeley Repertory Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. For tickets and Information please call 510-647-2929 or toll free 888-4-BRT-Tix or

Coming up next is all wear bowlers opening November 24 and running through December 23rd.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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