Some stage plays and musicals are adapted into films. Others are simply filmed. That would seem to be the easier gig—but if you’ve suffered through one where the camera never moved, or never seemed to be in the right place, and the whole static bore made you wonder why anyone thought it was worthwhile to see it live in the first place you know there’s nothing simple about it. The chance to see the original cast performing the piece as it was originally seen in the theater is hardly compensation if you pass out comatose after ten excruciating minutes.
Spike Lee, happily, got the essence of Passing Strange, an exuberant reproduction of the avant-garde rock concert/book musical hybrid that shook up Broadway in 2008, earning seven Tony nominations and winning the Drama Desk’s Outstanding Musical award. As a New York-based writer on theater I’ve been a Drama Desk member for about a decade, and was an awards nominator in the 2007-2008 season. That meant seeing, and evaluating, about a billion shows that opened, or a show practically every night, and up to five shows some weekends. In a blur of theater, Passing Strange stood out as unique, and Lee’s film is as good as being there—in some ways even better.
The show premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California in 2006, had an acclaimed Off Broadway run at the Public Theater in 2007, then raised the roof at the Belasco on 44th Street for five electrifying months. Lee and his uncannily perceptive cameras (wielded by Matthew Libatique, who shot his Inside Man, plus the two Iron Man films and Requiem for a Dream) were there for its final July weekend.
As Lee remarks in one of the disc’s backstage supplements, Passing Strange isn’t exactly “the 20th revival of Gypsy.” It is, in a quasi-autobiographical way, the story of its creator, the musician Stew, who serves as narrator and a funkier offshoot of the strolling balladeer. The excellent Daniel Breaker (who went on to play Donkey in Shrek the Musical) is cast as the dissatisfied Youth, who, tired of the middle-class, church-on-Sundays mores of South Central LA in the relatively secure late 70s, bolts to find “the real.” His split from his cautious, nurturing Mother (Eisa Davis) takes him first to trippy Amsterdam, a smorgasbord of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and then to the more politicized Berlin, where he confronts hard questions about race, ethics, and authenticity. Playing a mélange of characters whose lives Youth passes through is an outstanding ensemble: Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and the great Colman Domingo and de’Adre Aziza.
Stew won a Tony for his funny, insightful book, not the usual take on the black experience. (“You know what it’s like to wake up one morning and realize your whole life is based on a decision you made as a teenager?” the Narrator ruefully declares at one point.) “The real,” however, is very much the score he and Heidi Rodewald concocted, a joyous ramble through gospel, punk, jazz, blues, and rock that includes the rollicking “Amsterdam,” the rousing “Keys/It’s Alright,” and the more soulful “Love Like That” and “Come Down Now.”
Director Annie Dorsen and choreographer Karole Armitage keep the cast in constant motion. You don’t always know where to look when enjoying such an active show in the theater, and Lee clearly understood how the small moments in Passing Strange add up to the big picture. The camerawork is tight but never claustrophobic and pinpoints exactly the right emotions from scene to scene. It adds clarity without sacrificing pace or texture. I was wondering how Lee was going to handle the show’s exciting reveal of its setpiece, a massive lightwall (a collaboration of set designer David Korins and lighting designer Kevin Adams) that appears from behind curtains. The camera goes into an overhead shot during a song and then, voila, it’s there—a purely cinematic approach to capture an instance of pure theater. Beautiful.
The anamorphically enhanced image looks splendid on the DVD and the interview segments with the cast, filmed during the emotional peak of the final performances, are welcome. Lee’s smaller projects are often more rewarding than his features, and Passing Strange is no exception. He’s flirted with directing a Broadway show and his smooth translation of this one makes me eager to see how he’d manage. In the meantime, we have Passing Strange—not just a movie of a show, but an act of generosity on behalf of a piece we both love.
(Passing Strange also airs tonight on PBS’ Great Performances.)