"Passing Strange," the title of a new Broadway musical that comes here via Joe Papp's Public Theater, is an odd phrase that dates all the way back to Shakespeare. In Othello, the Black moor himself says of Desdemona that "she gave me for my pains a world of sighs; she swore, in faith, twas strange, twas passing strange." Seems like the idea of passing, and passing strange itself, has haunted the Black culture in all its ramifications for centuries, and Stew, the show's composer and lyricist, has made it something to sing about.
Stew's version is a blaring rock 'n' roll musical exploration of stereotypes, identity crisis, and adolescent angst, labeled by Stew as "autobiographical fiction." The main character, Youth, struggles not with racism per se, but too much mother' love for his young wannabe manhood. He feels an urgent need to shed his privileged lifestyle so he can be free to seek his true artistic spirit elsewhere. Heard this before?
Like Pippin, the forlorn fictional son of Charlemagne in the musical of the same name, Youth sets off to find his own "corner of the sky," which, he believes, is somewhere over the rainbow. Or Europe. Rejecting his church-going roots, his middle-class upbringing, and his mother's entreaties, Youth sets out on a quest for whatever.
When he finally lands in "Amsterdam" (one of the show's biggest numbers), he realizes he's no long in the insular community of south central LA. The Bohemian rhapsodies he learns there, and in Berlin, scream more revolution than the streets of Watts ever could, and yet, Youth doesn't quite fit in. Can't "pass" there either. Too Black? Not Black enough? Songs like "Identity" and "The Black One" emphasize his confusion and help lead Youth toward the inevitable conclusion that, ultimately, he must trust his inner voice and follow it homeward.
The freedom of expression he experiences on his European journey is mind-blowing, as is the music which cranks up double-digit decibels with each step he takes towards maturity. And just when you think it couldn't get any louder, it does, till it verges on an "Acid Queen" deluge of pounding guitar and drums, synchronized with Youth's sexual awakenings. To be sure we didn't miss any meaning, however, psychedelic lights simultaneously stab at our senses to make this Youth's confusion visual -- all that's missing is the strobe.
Daniel Breaker as Youth reminds one of a young Ben Vereen, minus the Bob Fosse choreography. But Stew, as both narrator and musician, is the focal point of this concertized ensemble production, and his enormous presence tends to eclipse the other characters. That's not a major problem, though, since the talented youngsters in this musical are strong performers anyway -- it's the concert format that's the major flaw.
"Passing Strange" is, in actuality, a concert with a story, which is most strange since there was never a musical with costumes and sets and stuff like that the first place -- how most of us think of a musical. What we see on stage are a few musicians, and actors sitting in chairs who move downstage, and sing and dance to dramatize a part of Stew's story as his narrative progresses.
Though this is all very intimate in nature, something that could be played out in a large living room, the music is more suited for Madison Square Garden. More than one senior citizen was seen leaving the amped-up theater at intermission. Those who stayed were probably hearing impaired.
Instead of billing "Passing Strange" as a rock 'n' roll musical, it might be more appropriate to sell this production as a concert depicting the stages of Youth, particularly, Black youth, in late 20th century America. It is a dynamic musical that vibrates right to your heart. Bring ear plugs if you must, but leave your mind open. If time for change is here, as our politicians tell us, then Stew is one huge change agent.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
What the press had to say.....
"It is far richer in wit, feeling and sheer personality than most of what is classified as musical theater in the neighborhood around Times Square these days,....bursting at the seams with melodic songs, and it features a handful of theatrical performances to treasure. It is undeniably playing on Broadway,...But please donï¿½t call it a Broadway musical. You could scare away too many people who might actually enjoy it."
New York Times
"The story feels familiar and smacks of warmed-over "Wizard of Oz." The stocky, bald Stew wears hipster shades and a dark suit as he narrates, sings and strums guitar. But he might as well be dressed in Dorothy Gale gingham and ruby slippers. What makes the show fresh is the music, which Stew wrote with Heidi Rodewald. Its rhythms and sounds go from hard-thumping rock and groovy blues to funk, punk and gospel....Director Annie Dorsen helped create "Strange," and her lively staging gives the show a restlessness to match the Youth's energetic spirit."
New York Daily News
""Passing Strange" is more like a Broadway cantata, a recycling of theater song-cycles of the likes Joe Papp encouraged at the Public, and sometimes risked on Broadway, many years ago. It's also beautifully performed by a beguiling cast - fun people to be with, even if one has to be with them rather longer than one might have planned." & "At the core of it is the altogether engaging Stew. He's a fine artist, and although Broadway may not be his alley, his offbeat beatness would be a delight to encounter in cabaret."
New York Post
"With its five-member band strategically positioned on a virtually bare stage, "Passing Strange" looks and sounds more like a rock concert than a conventional Broadway attraction. But the offbeat show soon proves to be one smart and extremely hip musical."
"Who knew that it would take a bunch of German teenagers and Eurocentric bohemians to rehabilitate the American musical? " & "Strange's playful, passionate presentation will inspire comparisons to rock musicals such as Hair and Godspell. In the end, though, Strange is truly unlike anything you've seen on Broadway. Let's hope that it helps inspire more musical-theater artists ï¿½ and producers ï¿½ to dare to be different."
"Let's not get too distracted figuring out how to categorize "Passing Strange," the stranger-in-a-strange-land original passing for a Broadway musical at the Belasco Theatre. What's important is that the thing - part indie-rock concert, part boho-art project, part coming-of-age black-identity crisis, part hipster travelogue - is all smart and all enjoyable and all very good for the theater."
"It's a witty, boisterous, often heretical dissection of racial identity in all its modern-day fluidity. It's also a hell of a good time."
New York Sun
"This show's two major assets are a great, big heart - surprising, as it comes through Stew's super-cool persona - and a wonderful sense of humor that keeps bubbling up unexpectedly. I love this show, which is so different from the standard Broadway musical that it demands its own category. It may be a hard sell to the traditional Broadway audience, but it should draw a whole new crowd to Broadway."
Jacques le Sourd
"The old jazz number "T'Ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It2 )" isn't the kind of music they play in "Passing Strange." The song's title, though, perfectly nails the show's appeal." & "What's distinctive in this offbeat, funny, warm-hearted and engaging semi-autobiographical show is the telling, which is done by Stew, a pudgy, round-faced rock-and-roller of great wit." & "Fresh and invigorating show"
"Passing Strange" represents one of the more audacious attempts to bring rock 'n' roll to Broadway, and what it lacks in cohesion and theatrical imagination, it makes up for with musical passion and energy." & "Although it contains many acted-out dialogue scenes, the thematically slight "Passing Strange" ultimately feels more like a song cycle than a narrative musical. And it is seriously over-extended with its nearly 2 1/2-hour running time."
The Hollywood Reporter
"This idiosyncratic odyssey toward self-knowledge explores universal questions of identity with the specificity and wry insight of autobiographical experience. It's boldly atypical Broadway fare that pulses with a new kind of vitality." & "Breaks the mold with electrifying inventiveness."