In 2008, the Tony-winning ‘Passing Strange’ offered the Broadway musical as a post-modern rock concert.
Conceived and composed by Stew (with Heidi Rodewald) and directed by Annie Dorsen, it was a powerhouse little concert with a narrator singing and playing electric guitar on a stripped-down white box of a set. It looked like a contemporary gallery was hosting a performance-art concert. Shades of Andy Warhol’s The Factory and the Velvet Underground.
The white box even had neon art striped along the walls that would light up and dance in different patterns, while the stage floor had convenient ‘traps’ out of which band members or actors would rise like pistons, pumping in a new scene, another number.
It was all very spare and chill. But most impressively, ‘Passing Strange’ — with admirable ease — stepped across all the barriers that have kept rock ‘n’ roll stuck in those other musical theater boxes: the nostalgic jukebox musical (‘Jersey Boys’), the roaring but clumsy-artsy rock opera (‘The Who’s Tommy,’ Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’) or the soupy grandeur of the pop music melodrama or “popera” (‘Les Miz,’ Elton John’s ‘Aida’).
Basically, the musical-theater barriers are these: How can rock ‘n’ roll songs unfold a full-length story, one with developing characters when each musical number roars (and dances) like a nitro roadster on bald tires? Rock songs are all three minutes and a cloud of dust. Conversely, what kind of story can this show relate that won’t seem pretentious, silly or formulaic when it pummels us with all that four-on-the-floor rhythmic fun?
‘Hamilton’ and ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch” – Broadway breakthroughs for hip-hop and glam-rock, respectively – succeed partly because they also leap past those stage barriers of narrative, character and performance. But here was Stew, a composer-actor-narrator-guitarist, pulling off such a feat with straight-up, guitar-driven rock. Little wonder ‘Passing Strange’ made for a riveting evening. At times, it seemed as if Stew was doing it all by himself onstage –using rock ‘n’ roll and theatrical showmanship to address racial and sexual politics much like ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Hedwig’ – but in a more compact package.
Too bad it never gained those shows’ popular audience. An off-Broadway hit, “Strange” ran only five months on Broadway and never toured. Five years later, the ‘LA Times’ complained the city still hadn’t seen the show. It’s taken nine years to premiere it here in North Texas. Yet ‘Passing Strange’ was what a rock concert-turned-musical can do when it fuses a knowing irony, real heart, a deceptively simple stage style – and, oh yeah, some fierce little tunes. As a result, the Spike Lee-directed film record of the Broadway production is one of the more visually, dramatically and musically satisfying rock concert films / stage documentaries since the Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense’ from 1984.
Stew’s story of a young black man’s flight from his middle-class church in LA to the hemp-smoking radicals of Europe allowed ‘Passing Strange’ to ring the changes on gospel, rhythm-and-blues, punk, funk and avant-garde cabaret. A thick musical brew, both spirited and lightly mocking. The story is based on Stew’s own struggles, but the journey is familiar enough from the show’s patron saint, James Baldwin. A young black man tries to figure out race, sex, politics, music and his own mixed-up self by putting some distance between him and America.
Gotta get that expat perspective.
But with Theatre Three’s area premiere of ‘Passing Strange,’ all that bright, performance-art minimalism is gone (the two video screens add little in the way of visual novelty or depth — they might as well be street signs). What’s also gone to a degree is the immense, blow-your-head-back power of amplified rock on a concert stage. Instead, David Wash’s set has Persian-rugged walkways and a mixed-up-typeface sign reading “the ReAl” along a back wall. It transports us to a different milieu, a ’60s-era, late-night folk club, a club like the hungry i or The Bitter End. One half-expects a young comic to warm up the crowd with jokes about Nixon. (Very appropriate lighting from Aaron Johansen; he practically reproduces period reefer smoke.)
Yet in artfully condensing ‘Passing Strange’ into Theatre Three’s foursquare space, director vicki washington has kept it singing and kicking and beguiling. It’s now less an innovative rock concert and more an intimate, marvelously potent revue-turned-musical. This makes clear Stew’s solution to the Great Rock ‘n Roll Musical-Theater Divide: A narrator can add character and commentary and keep the story moving (a narrator, in fact, is a major player in both ‘Hedwig’ and ‘Hamilton’).
‘Passing Strange’ plays like a revue-turned-rock-musical because there’s a biographical through-line here, but the material isn’t held together so much by the plot sequence. It’s the older and wiser Narrator singing for and ruefully looking back on the Youth, his callow, earlier counterpart that gives us the emotional development. We get a double perspective, a give-and-take. With the considerable assistance of Calvin Scott Roberts’ performance – he is utterly comfortable and commanding as the Narrator – ‘Passing Strange’ is, flat out, a pleasure to experience, one of the most enjoyable and affecting musical efforts Theatre Three has offered lately.
Like ‘The Who’s Tommy,’ like even ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘Passing Strange’ is another rock ‘n’ roll kunstlerroman. It’s the story of a wannabe star trying to match his life with his pressing ambitions, trying to recreate himself as a newer, grander, better persona. But where ‘Tommy’ and ‘Superstar’ mixed this with messianic messages, the central struggle in ‘Passing Strange’ is over blackness: What it means to be black, what personal and political demands that makes on an artist, how does it hold him back or define him, and how might he get beyond all that to be his own fully realized, funky self on and off stage.
No surpise, then, why this show didn’t catapult into public awareness the way ‘Hedwig’ and ‘Hamilton’ have: It is insistently about race, about race today. Yet while James Baldwin may be the show’s patron saint, ‘Passing Strange’ doesn’t traffic in his razor-edged rage over racial hatred, ghetto poverty or his own family abuse. Looking back, Stew has a warmer, sadder yet bemused take on his flounderings. Our naive hero, the Youth, is actually raised in a decently middle-class house by a loving (if persistently church-going) mother (Nikka Morton). It’s one of Stew’s comic strokes to have the Narrator point out, almost immediately, how the mother falls into stereotypical ‘Negro dialect’ whenever she talks of church or God. From the start, being black is handled as part performance, part constricting context.
When it comes to contexts and constriction, the Youth soon encounters that classic dilemma: Being black in America is a role that doesn’t fit his style or ambitions. He also becomes aware of how many people around him seem to fit in perfectly fine because they’re conveniently ‘passing’ — passing as black, passing as true believers. The show’s title comes from Othello’s description of Desdemona’s response to his own journey, his epic transformation into the Moor of Venice, an admired military hero, a respected leader, a black Muslim in a white Christian world: “My story being done / She gave me for my pains a world of sighs. / She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange, / Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful. / She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished / That heaven had made her such a man.” Stew takes this passage on ‘passing’ and runs and puns with its many meanings. Even characters just passing a joint seem to be wryly commenting on their shared quest for authentic (or hash-disguised) selves.
One thing the Youth does discover in church is that all the rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues he loves had their start there. But he doesn’t know what to do with that love or with himself. He just wants out. So he breaks his mother’s heart and heads for Amsterdam, fabled city of dope, casual sex and racial acceptance, then on to Berlin, fabled city of hard-as-nails, defiantly political artist-poseurs.
It’s in Berlin that he’s forced to face the question that still pursues him: Just Who the Heck Does He Think He Is? What can his racial background or his ‘art’ bring to this party? In a wickedly funny sequence, the Youth promptly claims the oppressed-gangland-ghetto-self he never had but which he knows will impress the Germans. The Youth may lack self-knowledge, but he does know this much: Just like going to church without faith, he’s still a fraud as an original gangsta. And just like in America, he knows this hustle can work.
It’s the three women in his life who actually see him for what he is – and lovingly accept him or lovingly nudge him to get his act together. This holds true from his mother and his Amsterdam lover (the warm and gentle Ayanna Edwards) to his Berlin lover-and-mother-replacement (Cherish Robinson – who’s made of sterner stuff).
As the Youth, Darren McElroy starts off too twitchy and frantic, chasing a comic effect he doesn’t need to lunge for. When the Youth defiantly declares to his mother he’s leaving for Europe, one half-expects McElroy to come out of the closet, admit he’s suffering heroin withdrawal and that he really admires the onscreen panic attacks of early Richard Pryor. It’s when McElroy faces the more worldly Europeans that his gullible boy-man becomes sweetly funny. His wide-eyed, slow-on-the-uptake stare says everything. Confronting the Youth is Cam Kirkpatrick, who has no trouble at all playing the various black men the Youth measures himself against, including an over-the-top, transvestite performer who manages to mash-up RuPaul and Bertolt Brecht. He’s both dangerous and wonderfully ridiculous.
As Stew, Calvin Scott Roberts plays the guitar more as a prop than an instrument. Which is why I do wish the band’s real lead guitar were louder in the mix. Sometimes this show needs to shred and squeal. At those moments, “Passing Strange” needs that extra musical punch, a bit of roaring rock transcendence.
It should sound like the best of Stew’s music and Calvin Scott Roberts’ surpassing performance: gutsy, committed, casually convincing.