Theatre Is Easy: “Passing Strange”

Written by Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: An avant-garde new musical for artists, by artists. It’s quite inventive and touching, but maybe too “out there” for non-artists.

Passing Strange is a new rock musical about rock music. And it rocks. The five-piece band sits onstage through the entire show, and though they’re almost always playing, they’re also interacting with the cast and even speaking lines themselves.

The five musicians and six actors work together to tell the “autobiographical fiction” of Stew, the one-name frontman of the Negro Problem. Stew wrote Passing Strange‘s book and lyrics and cowrote the score with bassist and longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald. He also narrates the play and acts as bandleader.

The story isn’t exactly unique: Stew is a young black man growing up in middle-class L.A. who’s trying to find his way in a society that wants him to conform, even though all he wants to do is play music and be himself. He eventually heads to Europe to find the freedom to be an artist. The story is told in three phases: in L.A. before Stew 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 subject for a play, but the storytelling techniques and creative concepts used 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), and the visuals are minimal, with the set made up of just a few chairs, a desk, and a music stand. At the back of the stage is a giant wall of bright neon lights carefully designed by Kevin Adams, the lighting designer of Spring Awakening; the wall informs the story, changing and pulsating as the scene dictates. Director Annie Dorsen’s staging is clever and seamless, thanks in part to Stew’s narration.

Passing Strange is a powerful theatrical experience. For an artist seeing this show, something almost indescribable is shared — the plight for self-expression. To the artist, art is more important than anything, and Stew makes it clear that he “gets” the artists in the audience. But if you’re not an artist I’m afraid Passing Strange may not resonate in the same way.

I saw it with a non-artist. At intermission he told me he loved Act I, which is more about the rebellious teen than the struggling artist, because the story was captivating and not too self-indulgent. After the show had ended, however, he was singing a new song. He felt Act II was way too narcissistic and swept up in tortured-artist drama. He was no longer able to relate to what was happening onstage.

Passing Strange takes the rock musical to a new and groundbreaking place, and for that, Stew and crew should be applauded. I 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 it’s mainstream enough to appeal to the average theatergoer.

Passing Strange is currently playing at the Belasco Theatre: Tue 7 PM, Wed-Sat 8 PM (Wed and Sat also 2 PM), and Sun 3 PM. Tickets are available at the box office at 111 W. 44th St., at telecharge.com, or by calling 212-239-6200. Prices range from $26.50 (if you’re 25 or younger, you can get a youth ticket for a great seat at this price) to $111.50. Check out passingstrangeonbroadway.com for more info.

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