How best to describe "Passing Strange," which strangely passed from downtown's Public Theater to the uptown Belasco?
Devised by the plump, stately singer/songwriter Stew (real name behind the shades: Mark Stewart) and Heidi Rodewald, is it a pop punk-rock concert without the hoopla - or a lounge act without the lounge?
As a rock concert with a theme, it's not exactly a show that could play Madison Square Garden, and at about 2½ hours, it clocks in far too long for a lounge act.
Yet, with its bare-bones staging by Annie Dorsen and Stew's anecdotal book and lyrics, it hardly measures up to a Broadway musical, either - although the producers probably base their hopes on the success of the far more original "Rent."
"Passing Strange" is more like a Broadway cantata, a recycling of theater song-cycles of the likes Joe Papp encouraged at the Public, and sometimes risked on Broadway, many years ago.
It's also beautifully performed by a beguiling cast - fun people to be with, even if one has to be with them rather longer than one might have planned.
The "Candide"-like theme tells a picaresque tale of a young man's quest for self-knowledge and identity. In this case, a middle-class black kid from Los Angeles tries out life in Europe - drugs, music and sex in Amsterdam, and revolution, music and sex in West Berlin - before returning, freshly self-identified, to LA.
In Berlin, as a passport to the pseudo-revolutionary world our hero aspires to, he invents ghetto credentials - or, as the show puts it, "passing strange."
This is a conceit less strange than the show's authors try to suggest: Self-invention is often a prelude to self-identification. Yet, for all its conventionality, Stew's book and particularly his lyrics are witty and pointed.
He has a dry sense of humor that's perfectly on-target, and stands back from these presumably autobiographical vignettes with a wry but calculated modesty.
The music is very loud but less original, with most of the onstage band - including co-composer Rodewald on bass - joining in the singing.
It's a great, if virtually unknown, cast, all of whom - except Stew, the show's narrator, and a brilliant Daniel Breaker, who plays his younger and more agile self - play multiple roles with a vivacity that matches Broadway's finest.
At the core of it is the altogether engaging Stew. He's a fine artist, and although Broadway may not be his alley, his offbeat beatness would be a delight to encounter in cabaret.
“At this point in the play, we were planning a show tune,” says the roly-poly guy with the guitar and the funny eyeglasses. “An upbeat gotta-leave-this-town kinda show tune.”
It appears there’s a little problem. “We don’t know how to write those kind of tunes,” he adds, in a tone of shrugging apology.
This may seem a bit strange, since the roly-poly guy with the guitar and the funny eyeglasses happens to be standing on the stage of the Belasco Theater, where the exuberant new show “Passing Strange” opened on Thursday night.
But “Passing Strange” just ain’t a show tune kinda show, despite its arrival at a venerable Broadway theater where many a gotta-leave-this-town anthem has surely been sung. Although it is far richer in wit, feeling and sheer personality than most of what is classified as musical theater in the neighborhood around Times Square these days, its big heart throbs to the sound of electric guitars, searing synthesizer chords, driving drums and lyrics delivered not in a clean croon but a throaty yelp.
A rock ’n’ roll autobiography of an artist in search of himself, “Passing Strange” is bursting at the seams with melodic songs, and it features a handful of theatrical performances to treasure. It is undeniably playing on Broadway, after transferring from a summer run at the Public Theater downtown.
But please don’t call it a Broadway musical. You could scare away too many people who might actually enjoy it.
Call it a rock concert with a story to tell, trimmed with a lot of great jokes. Or call it a sprawling work of performance art, complete with angry rants and scary drag queens. Call it whatever you want, really. I’ll just call it wonderful, and a welcome anomaly on Broadway, which can use all the vigorous new artistic blood it can get.
The roly-poly guy is a singer-songwriter with a cult following who goes by the single name of Stew. He is the author of the show’s book and lyrics, the composer (with Heidi Rodewald) of its music, and its lead guitarist and musical narrator too.
With his bald dome, goofy aspect and neat black suit worn with sneakers, Stew does not look like anybody else on a New York stage at the moment. He does not much resemble a scraggly-sexy emo pinup either. This is entirely fitting, since his is the story of a young man achingly out of place in the world, trying on poses and assuming new guises in his quest for an identity that, as he will ultimately learn, many artists can only find in their art.
This is not, to be sure, a story heretofore untold. Many a memoir has charted the same emotional territory, of youthful angst, family rebellion and spiritual awakening through sex, drugs and self-obsession. Oops, I mean self-expression.
But as an African-American who grew up comfortably in Los Angeles, where he defiantly cleaved to Zen Buddhism and punk rock, thumbing his nose at church and Mom and the prospect of middle-class achievement, Stew brings an invigorating new perspective to the classic coming-of-age narrative.
He brings a gently satiric touch too. As Stew narrates the semi-fictionalized story of his search for personal and aesthetic fulfillment, which took him from the not-mean streets of Los Angeles to the hash cafes of Amsterdam and the Berlin bars where bitter artists plot assaults on mainstream culture, he provides comic footnotes and musical annotation as his memories leap to life before him. Now and then he slides those funky yellow-tinted eyeglasses up his forehead, and interjects a wry observation as he looks on with a mixture of affection and consternation at the callow youth he once was.
This jumpy character — in the text he is simply called Youth — is portrayed by the sensational Daniel Breaker, whose performance has grown tremendously since the Off Broadway run. Brimming with the nervy energy of an ego itching to write its name on the world, Mr. Breaker scampers around the stage with antic enthusiasm, eyes glowing with righteous self-importance or popping with comic mortification. It is as if the older Stew, restrained and reflective, is trying to keep in check a cartoon version of himself that keeps straying from his grasp and getting into trouble.
The men and women who help shape our hero’s destiny are portrayed by a small ensemble of actors whose performances have also been subtly scaled up to suit the Broadway stage. Colman Domingo is priceless in two roles. As the jaded leader of a church choir in Act I he initiates the young Stew into the rites of pot smoking and imperiously bestows on him the privilege of being a stranger in his own skin. (“Black folks passing for black folks,” his acolyte marvels. “That’s a trip!”) In the second act he enlivens a potentially clichéd spoof of performance art with snarling ferociousness.
Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones are equally fine as Stew’s clueless fellow punk-band members, and, later, as his finicky mentors in Euro-bohemianism, for whom the young Stew, in one of the show’s brightest sequences, ineptly poses as the Oppressed American Black Man he never was. (Mr. Breaker’s limber dash through 25 years of “Soul Train” dance moves is priceless.)
The radiant De’Adre Aziza is delightful as a self-possessed teenage beauty queen urging the nerdy young Stew to “blacken up a bit.” And Eisa Davis portrays with warmth and grace the mother Stew leaves behind, to discover only too late how grievously final the parting would be.
The show’s structure is loose, its mood informal, as song moves fluidly into story on a bare stage lighted by Kevin Adams with his customary subtle insight. (Mr. Adams and the set designer David Korins collaborated on the spectacular wall of neon advertising the dazzling allurements of Europe.) Some episodes are more engaging than others — the romances feel a bit pro forma to me — but the musical is bound together by the eloquence and power of the songs, played by the skilled onstage band. (That’s Ms. Rodewald on bass and backing vocals).
Directed with finesse by Annie Dorsen (who created the show in collaboration with Stew and Ms. Rodewald), “Passing Strange” struts with a new vitality uptown. A bit shorter, a lot sharper, and infused with the sense of occasion that the old mystique of Broadway — bless its mercantile heart — can still bring to a theatrical event, it also moved me as it had not downtown in its consideration of the hard bargains that must be struck with life in order to pursue a career in art.
If that sounds familiar, perhaps it is because the opening of “Passing Strange” comes just a week after that of another Broadway musical about an artist struggling to reconcile the demands of his vocation with his duty to love. I suspect the Georges Seurat brought to life again in the splendid new revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George” would find much in common with the sardonic songwriter whose presence on a Broadway stage is every bit as unlikely. As the painter sees life through the distancing prisms of color and light, Stew looks at the people in his world and sees songs to be written.
The Seurat of “Sunday” would surely understand Stew’s reflections on the trouble this makes for the creatively obsessed. “People like me — we feel like art is more real than life,” he says toward the end of the show. The Sondheim Seurat would sympathize too with Stew’s response to an unfathomable loss. He just picks up his guitar and gets ready to rock onward, trying to “fill the void with song.”
From "Hair" to "Rent" to "Spring Awakening," composers have sought to reinvigorate musical theater by harnessing the energy and raw expressiveness of rock. But "Passing Strange," the defiantly unclassifiable musical by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Stew, is something else altogether -- a magical mystery tour that fuses aspects of concert, concept album, cabaret and revivalist meeting. Significantly finessed since last year's Public Theater run, this idiosyncratic odyssey toward self-knowledge explores universal questions of identity with the specificity and wry insight of autobiographical experience. It's boldly atypical Broadway fare that pulses with a new kind of vitality.
Closer in spirit to the punk rebelliousness and ironic humor of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" than to conventional tuners, the show may be an odd fit in the mainstream commercial landscape and likely will baffle a chunk of the traditional musical audience. No doubt it needs to aggressively court music fans beyond the standard theatergoing pool if it's to find a niche on Broadway. But in a sector often criticized for its aversion to risk, the producing team deserves kudos for allowing this bracingly original work a broader platform on which to blossom.
The impressionable innocent at the show's center is a fictionalized younger stand-in for narrator Stew, known simply as Youth (Daniel Breaker). A Zen Buddhist stranded in 1970s black middle-class Los Angeles, with a mother (Eisa Davis) intent on dragging him to church, he resists her notion of spirituality but has his own religious experience when it dawns on him that gospel music is the root of rock 'n' roll.
A further epiphany follows over a shared joint with flamboyant pastor's son Franklin (Colman Domingo). Franklin's wistful reflections about bohemian Europe -- and the confession that he's been too chained to his father's checkbook ever to have traveled anywhere outside his stoned head -- cement Youth's wanderlust.
Smartly juxtaposing Youth's shallowness with Stew's more world-weary detachment, the show follows the hero as he bounces from the hippy-dippy hash haze and sexual libertarianism of Amsterdam to a radical-chic, anarchistic artists' community in Berlin. In both places, the initial elation of outsider acceptance gives way to hollow disappointment.
Like most journeys, Youth's flight takes him away from home and back again in order to find somewhere he truly belongs. But Stew has little interest in pat resolutions or capsule-form messages.
As the title (lifted from "Othello") indirectly suggests, "Passing Strange" is about trying on different personas in order to be someone more interesting. Its protagonist is so busy being an artist he neglects to be himself.
This theme and related race questions are most explicit when Youth fabricates ghetto credibility in Berlin, exploiting stereotypes by spinning tales of tough times on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles into a neo-minstrel performance piece. But more subtle forms of role-playing and self-deception are explored throughout the show, examining how what passes for love, pain, art or freedom can be meaningless without full acceptance of one's own identity.
While the picaresque detail of the hero's travels already was etched with satirical bite and freshness at the Public, the show's philosophical and emotional observations were more amoebic. But Stew and director/co-creator Annie Dorsen have fine-tuned the material, adding definition and removing most of the lulls from the previously rambling second act in particular.
They avoid the trap of over-earnestness by maintaining an older-and-wiser vantage point while also indulging their naive central character with the tenderness and compassion needed to make an audience empathize with him and have faith in his eventual maturity.
Dorsen's achievement here in giving the episodic musical a satisfying shape cannot be overstated. Working with choreographer Karole Armitage, she creates something propulsive and viscerally exciting out of minimalist staging. And the switch from the Public's Anspacher thrust stage to a proscenium further amplifies the atmosphere of an arena rock show.
Designer David Korins' ingenious device of having each of the four onstage musicians half-submerged in individual mini-pits distances them while at the same time allowing them to interact with the ensemble. And Kevin Adam's elaborately sculpted, psychotropic lighting is a dynamic spectacle in itself; the reveal of a throbbing wall of fluorescent color when the scene shifts to Amsterdam is breathtaking.
Referencing everything from James Brown to European arthouse cinema to "My Fair Lady," the music by Stew and bass player Heidi Rodewald genre-hops nimbly between hard-driving rock, garage punk, folk, funk, jazz, gospel and multiple points in between.
Often the musical style springs organically from the narrative -- the German interlude has a Kurt Weill flavor; the saucy "We Just Had Sex" recalls the Europop novelty numbers recorded by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in the late '60s; the protagonist's awakening from bourgeois L.A. to the hedonistic wonderland of Amsterdam has the call-and-response fervor of religious salvation.
Squat and round, with a shaved head and a tidy goatee, wearing a black suit and red shirt, Stew looks (and often sounds) like a beatnik throwback -- he's like the love child of Allen Ginsberg and Chuck Berry. But whether he's spanking a guitar or pushing back his glasses to scrutinize his alter ego with a mix of fondness and exasperation, the writer-performer's unassuming appearance belies an unstudied charisma that's as relaxed as it is compelling.
While Stew's ownership of the piece is unequivocal, he steps back throughout and allows the spotlight to linger on each member of the cast.
The appealing Breaker's light touch never falters, deftly offsetting the posturing pretensions of countercultural hipsterism with his character's youthful ingenuousness. Davis also creates a fully rounded character of enormous warmth and humanity, funny when she assumes "the Negro dialect" on Sunday mornings and intensely moving when she attempts by phone to reconnect with her long-absent son.
The multi-tasking ensemble's incisive characterizations are too many to list. But Rebecca Naomi Jones and De'Adre Aziza both register strongly as Youth's romantic attachments, and the versatile Chad Goodridge brings irrepressible spirit to a handful of distinct personalities. Domingo delivers scene-stealing comic turns as swishy, sadly enslaved Franklin, and demented German performance artist Mr. Venus, who's like Mos Def channeling Udo Kier.
That bizarre combination in some way reflects the beguiling oddness of a rock performer like Stew in the unlikely context of a Broadway musical. Whether this personal yet joyously inclusive show is a first step into the form or a one-time excursion, "Passing Strange" breaks the mold with electrifying inventiveness.