The Newark Star Ledger | 2007.may.15
NEW YORK Not at all traditional in format but blazing with bluesy rock 'n roll music, Passing Strange is an enjoyable new show about a young black man's pursuit of his dream to be an artist.
The story is familiar, but its treatment is nicely off-beat in the dynamic off-Broadway production at the Public Theater, which opened Monday.
Deafening blasts of rock 'n roll assault the ear initially, but within a few minutes, the show shifts into a groove that's easy to follow. "If you're ever not sure what we're on about, just ask the song," counsels Passing Strange co-writer Stew, who functions as narrator, and his advice proves to be helpful.
Stew's tale spins around a character identified only as "Youth" (Daniel Breaker), a teenager brought up in bourgeois black circumstances in 1970s Los Angeles.
Unwillingly dragged to church by his mother (Eisa Davis), our hero is lit up by a revelation of how his future lies in music. Experiences in the choir and with a garage band open his eyes to a more exciting life elsewhere, and he heads for Europe.
"At this point in the play we were planning... an upbeat 'gotta leave this town' kinda show tune," confides Stew. "But we don't know how to write those kinds of tunes. However, we do know how to make fun of European art house cinema. So without further ado..." And the youth's farewell to his troubled mother turns into something out of an Antonioni movie.
Then he's flying off to Amsterdam, where free weed and group love in a bohemian squat offer new experiences and material for music-making. His subsequent adventures among the avant-garde set in 1980s Berlin are harsher, but he amusingly develops a successful musical pose as an angry rebel from the ghetto.
All the while, he gives his anxious mom's transatlantic phone calls short shrift, which eventually brings him to grief and further epiphanies.
Portraits of fledgling artists as young people are scarcely new, but the rhythmic and melodious and often witty Tom Waits-y style score created by Stew with collaborator Heidi Rodewald offers a tuneful time. The nearly continuous blues-infused score shimmers with eclectic touches of genres varying from gospel to techno to punk.
Director Annie Dorsen fluently lays out events on a practically bare stage backed by a gauzy curtain suffusing with different colors. Yet the space finds room for four musicians including bass player Rodewald and at the crucial moment when the central character departs for Europe, the curtain reveals a stunning light wall of neon-sign-type design symbolizing his vivid new existence.
Designed by Kevin Adams and David Korins, this illuminative background provides the show with a boost of visual energy near its midway point that kicks everything into a higher gear.
Led by Stew's friendly presence and Breaker's wide-eyed performance, de'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones portray with style and humor a dozen characters ranging from fresh-faced choristers to grim German poseurs. Everybody moves sinuously through Karole Armitage's cool choreography.
Broadway is not the proper destination for this artful endeavor, but Passing Strange surely deserves a longer life in some venue where this funky, significant study in youthful aspirations might find a receptive audience.