BOTTOM LINE: an avant-garde new musical for artists, by artists. It's quite inventive and touching, but maybe too out there for the non-artists among us.
Passing Strange is a new rock musical about rock music. And it rocks. The five-piece band sits on stage through the entire show and though they are almost always playing, they are also interacting with the cast and even speaking lines themselves. The five musicians and six actors work together to tell this story. The musicians are lead by Stew, the narrator of the story and the one whose story it is. Stew wrote the book and the lyrics, co-wrote the music with bassist Heidi Rodewald, and stars in this show about his life...welcome to Stew's world.
The story isn't exactly unique; Stew is a young, black man in middle-class L.A. trying to find his way in a society that's trying to make him conform, even though all he wants to do is play music and be himself. He's a good kid who wants to do right, but he pursues his ultimate rebellion in the name of art and goes to Europe to find the freedom to be an artist. Passing Strange is told in three phases of Stew's journey: in L.A before he leaves home, in Amsterdam after he arrives in Europe and finally in Berlin after he tires of Amsterdam.
Angsty-artist-on-a-journey is hardly a new topic in theatre, but the storytelling techniques and creative conception in Passing Strange are definitely innovative. The actors all play multiple characters from scene to scene (although the actor playing young Stew remains that character throughout the show). The visuals are minimal, with the set simply a few chairs, a desk and a music stand. The largest set pieces are the four separate sections of the stage for the band members and their instruments. The staging is clever and seamless and with Stew's narration I always knew what was going on throughout the story. At the back of the stage is a giant wall of lights, carefully designed by Kevin Adams (the lighting designer from Spring Awakening). Adams really likes neon, and the wall serves as a massive set piece itself, with the lights changing and pulsing bright colors as the scene dictates.
Passing Strange is a powerful theatrical experience. For an artist to see this show, something almost indescribable is shared; it's the connection of the plight for self-expression. To the artist, art is more important than anything, and Stew makes it clear he really understands the artists in the audience. But if you're not an artist, I'm afraid Passing Strange won't resonate in the same way. I saw Passing Strange with a non-artist...at intermission the non-artist told me he loved Act I because the story was capitvating (at this point it was more about the rebellious teen than the struggling artist). We applauded the "autobiographical fiction" (as Stew refers to the show) because it wasn't too self-indulgent, but rather, about the audience as well. After the performance, however, Non-artist was singing a new song. He felt Act II was way too narcissistic and swept up with tortured-artist drama. He was no longer able to relate to what was happening on stage, and he felt that the story was no longer being told for him.
Passing Strange takes the rock musical to a new and groundbreaking place and for that, Stew and crew should be applauded. This is a story for artists and should definitely be seen by artists and especially musicians. I definitely recommend it to anyone who digs modern musical theatre because it's a great new take on what musical theatre can be. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Passing Strange is mainstream enough to appeal to the everyman theatre-goer.
(Passing Strange plays at the Belasco Theatre Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the Belasco box office at 111 West 44th Street, at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Ticket prices range from $26.50 through $111.50. If you're 25 or younger, get a youth ticket in a great seat for $26.50. Check out passingstrangeonbroadway.com for more info.)