The San Francisco Chronicle | 2007.may.14
In the opening scene of the soulful and entertaining new musical Passing Strange, the show's creator and narrator describes it as a play in which "the band tells you where it's at."
That's an appropriate description of this original piece, which seems to scoff at convention, falling somewhere between the common notion of musical theater and a hyper-theatrical rock concert.
The show, which opened Monday at the off-Broadway Public Theater, was created by the singer-songwriter known as Stew, a popular club performer at the Public's next-door music venue, Joe's Pub. Stew was commissioned to develop the musical by the Public and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it first appeared. He wrote the socially charged book and lyrics and composed the music with Heidi Rodewald, his collaborator of nearly a decade in the bands The Negro Problem and STEW. Rodewald also plays bass in Passing Strange.
The show takes us on a young black man's journey of escape and exploration. The main character, who is not referred to by name, is played with lively energy and humor by Daniel Breaker. His odyssey begins in Los Angeles, where he decides to quit the Baptist choir and leave his single mother (Eisa Davis) to search for "The Real" a euphemism for truth and meaning. He sets out for Europe, where he settles into bohemian scenes in Amsterdam and Berlin and immerses himself in orgies of art, sex and drugs though not necessarily in that order.
As the show unfolds, Stew armed with an electric guitar and a strong, expressive voice leads a five-piece band, performing a range of blues, funk, gospel, punk and ballads.
His strongest appeal as an artist may be his refreshing originality. He cannot be neatly pigeonholed into any single genre. His writing brings to mind the sardonic lyricism of Randy Newman. His singing style echoes the wry conviction of Cat Stevens. His songs are composed with a playful irreverence reminiscent of Frank Zappa.
The book and lyrics of Passing Strange are infused with a rhythmic and poetic sense of style. Unfortunately, the performers' words are too often lost in a clutter of notes and beats that at times obfuscate rather than accompany the vocals. Then again, this is rock music.
Under the direction of Annie Dorsen, the production effectively utilizes the space at the Public's intimate Anspacher Theater, which features a square stage facing audience members on three sides. Each of Stew's four bandmates (Rodewald, a drummer and two keyboard players) occupy mechanical lifts on each of the square's four edges, facing inward. When the action begins, the lifts descend, partly submerging the musicians in the stage.
In the middle of the first act, nearly translucent curtains are removed to reveal an industrial backdrop brilliantly illuminated from top to bottom by multicolored, variously shaped neon lights. The wall, designed by Kevin Adams and David Korins, provides a fitting accent to Stew's musical fantasy.
The strength of Passing Strange, which runs through June 3, lies in its original songs, funky band and talented cast.