Passing Strange is my favorite new American musical of recent vintage; certainly the most thrillingly adventurous and high-energy-pull-the-audience-out-of-their-seats-and-up-on-their feet show to arrive on Broadway in quite some time. It feels more like Hair than anything in between 1967 and now, mainly because—and this is probably the main reason I love it so much—it doesn't care one bit what a musical is supposed to be like. Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the authors of Passing Strange, and director Annie Dorsen have exactly zero Broadway musical credits among them before this. And it shows, in their ability to challenge and subvert expectations left and right, constantly keeping us alert and engaged and involved and utterly wrapped up inside this remarkable, singular, very personal, very empathetic musical play about growing up, growing into ourselves, and being precisely that person that we alone are meant to be. Form and content are in perfect harmony, for this show is precisely the show it alone is meant to be, and not like any other.
Stew is not only the author of all the words sung and spoken in this show and, with Rodewald, co-composer and co-orchestrator; he's also the star, narrating a story that's unabashedly his own, more or less, from his position (usually) centerstage behind a mike. Sometimes that mike is freestanding; sometimes it's on a podium, as if Stew were delivering a little speech to his local PTA or something; and at one point it's even on a table that Stew shares with two of his actors. The mike and the chairs pretty much comprise the entire set, by the way; the places we go in Passing Strange are filled out almost entirely by each of us in our mind's eyes, so that the coming-of-age tale playing out on stage might start to blend in interesting ways with the one we played out ourselves however many years ago.
There is one important design element here, though: a wall of light designed by David Korins and Kevin Adams that helps define the main locales of the story (Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and Berlin) and that delivers jolt after jolt of metaphorical as well as literal electricity to fuel this high-voltage tale. (Sorry if that extended metaphor got a bit away from me just now.)
Ok, let me tell you about the story. It's about a young African American called simply Youth in the program; he's dressed in a junior version of what Stew is wearing—red t-shirt, black jeans, and black sneakers—so we safely assume he's Stew's alter ego. The play begins when this young man is a teenager, bored to tears when his mother makes him go to church, until one day he discovers that the music in the church actually speaks to him...and his vocation takes root. Our protagonist joins the church choir, which is run by the elegantly campy and cowardly Franklin Jones; then forms a punk band with two of the "bad kids" from the neighborhood. And then he realizes that he's never going to find himself in a place where, as he says, he can't "be" himself, and so he turns expatriate, landing first in Amsterdam and then in Berlin.
The bulk of the show deals with how this young artist grows and discovers who he is; grows into himself, finally, under the tutelage of surrogate families comprising performance artists and assorted weirdos in his new European "homes." Some of the joy of Passing Strange comes from spending time in the company of these oddly loving yet utterly self-absorbed young people: Mr. Venus, for example, a German performance artist, stops the show cold with a pretentious punk rant called "Surface" near the top of Act Two. But most of the potency of this play comes from Youth's maturity as an artist, from baby steps writing sappy love songs to working the system as a Misunderstood Black Artist From The Ghetto (brilliantly captured in two artful parodic numbers, "Identity" and "The Black One") to coming face to face with the man he's going to become, dueting with Stew on "Passing Phase."
Stew drifts in and out of the proceedings in a casual and friendly way that only rarely feels indulgent and never veers into self-referential meta-theatrics. This show may thumb its nose at structure and convention ("At this point in the play we were planning a showtune / An upbeat 'gotta leave this town' kinda showtune / But we don't know how to write those kinds of tunes..."), but it is never for even a millisecond less than 100% sincere and authentic. Like I said, Passing Strange knows what it wants to be and what it is—and never strays from its unwavering vision of itself.
It is blessed with a brilliant, multi-talented cast who get moment after moment to shine. Eisa Davis plays Stew's loving and long-suffering mother, grounding the show with her constancy. Daniel Breaker is Youth, Stew's alter ego, and he's astonishingly good, especially in the performance art numbers in the Berlin segment of the tale. de'Adre Aziza, Chad Goodridge, Colman Domingo, and Rebecca Naomi Jones play everybody else, and they're superb. Aziza is very funny as "teenage goddess" Edwina, who tells Youth that he's not black enough; and Jones is moving as Desi, his German girlfriend, who counsels him that he's strayed too far from his real roots and helps him get back on track. Domingo gets to play two over-the-top characters, Franklin Jones and Mr. Venus. Goodridge's versatility encompasses one of the goofy band members (hilariously tripping on LSD) as well as Dutch professor/sex worker Christophe.
Joining Stew to provide the music on stage are Rodewald (bass), Jon Spurney (keyboard and guitar), Christian Cassan (drums), and Christian Gibbs (guitar and keyboard). The sounds they make run the gamut from rock to punk to Fosse-inflected show music (for Stew and Rodewald in fact do know how to write those kinds of tunes when necessary); it's an eclectic, adventurous, heart-filling score that I think gets richer upon repeated listening.
Passing Strange is the blast of fresh air and fresh ideas that our theatre always needs: what's more exciting than something startlingly new and different? I hope this show finds its audience; I'm pretty sure all it needs is for people to give it a whirl...and then tell their friends about what they discovered while whirling.