Newsday | 2007.may.15
From the very first moments of the new rock musical Passing Strange, when the band jogs onto the stage like a team of football players, it's clear that this show is going to go heavy on the "rock." For one thing, just look at the instruments - two keyboards, a trap set and a rainbow variety of guitars. For another, mononomic frontman-narrator Stew has a voice that belongs in front of screaming teenagers: This guy doesn't just sing his songs, he tears into each one as if he can't wait to taste it.
The show tracks the progress of a young man billed as "Youth" in the program (a wonderfully energetic Daniel Breaker), from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Berlin to his transformation into Stew himself. Beginning with his years as the black middle-class child of a long-suffering mother (Eisa Davis) in "the best of all possible 'hoods" (L.A. in the 1970s), Stew and his crew deftly work the English language into a jokey, charged, poetic frenzy of clever lyrics and cool-sounding dialogue.
Beyond mere cleverness, though, Stew's knife-edge racial commentary is both upsetting and unexpectedly funny. Perhaps the best moment comes when Breaker's character has made his way to Berlin and is posing as an underprivileged inner-city kid, trading his skin tone for street cred among the pretentious German Marxists.
"Do you know what it's like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central?" Breaker shouts. Stew stops his younger self to briefly address the audience: "Nobody in this play knows what it's like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central."
Nearly all the characters here are beautifully and carefully drawn, from the closeted church piano player (Colman Domingo) who name-checks Jean-Luc Godard and Albert Camus but has never left the United States, to the beautiful Dutch girl (de'Adre Aziza) who gives out sex like a party favor but still is hurt when Breaker decides to move on.
The result of all this rock and roll and painstaking craftsmanship is a musical of individual discovery that belongs on the shelf next to standards such as John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. If the plot sounds familiar, what of it? Rarely has a musical writer enameled his biography with so much wit and intelligence. When Stew displays his self-knowledge in telling the tale of his coming-of-age, it makes his happy ending ring true.