In 2008, the Tony-winning ‘Passing Strange’ offered us the Broadway musical as 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 art gallery was hosting a performance-art event. Shades of Andy Warhol’s The Factory and the Velvet Underground.
The box even had neon stripe-art on 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 cool, but most impressively, ‘Passing Strange’ — with almost unbelievable ease — stepped across all those musical-theater barriers of narrative and character that have kept rock ‘n’ roll stuck in those other boxes: the nostalgic jukebox musical (‘Jersey Boys’), the roaring but clunky-artsy realm of the rock opera (‘The Who’s Tommy,’ Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’) or the soupy grandeur of the pop music melodrama (‘Les Miz,’ Elton John’s ‘Aida,’ Andrew Lloyd Webber’s whatever).
Basically, the musical-theater barriers are these: How do you make rock ‘n’ roll tell a full-length story when each song plays like a knock-out punch? What kind of story can you relate that won’t seem pretentious or silly or formulaic (or wear you out) when it sits astride such 4/4 ferocity?
‘Passing Strange’ on Broadway made for an exciting artistic achievement. Really. I simply didn’t think a single composer-performer-narrator could pull off such a feat. Leaping past these same stage barriers of narrative, character and performance has been one of the reasons for the breakthrough popularity of such shows as ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — breakthroughs for hip-hop and glam-rock, respectively.
Too bad ‘Passing Strange’ never gained their widespread attention. An off-Broadway hit, it ran only five months on Broadway and never toured. The ‘LA Times’ complained, five years later, the city still hadn’t seen the show. It’s taken nine years to premiere it in North Texas. Yet ‘Passing Strange’ was what a rock concert-turned-musical can do when it fuses a knowing irony, a deceptively simple stage style, a special talent for conveying character and story — and, oh yes, powering all this with some fierce little tunes. As a result, the Spike Lee-directed film record of the Broadway production is one of the most visually, dramatically and musically satisfying rock concert films / stage documentaries since the Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense’ (with a show conceived by David Byrne, filmed by Jonathan Demme in 1984).
Simultaneously heartfelt and lightly mocking, 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 rich musical brew. 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, art, politics, music and himself by putting some distance between himself and America, getting that expatriate perspective.
But with Theatre Three’s area premiere of ‘Passing Strange,’ all that bright, performance-art spareness 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, direct power of amplified rock on a concert stage. 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 an old-school, 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 the cigarette smoke.)
Yet in artfully condensing ‘Passing Strange’ into Theatre Three’s 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: Having a narrator adds character depth and keeps the story moving (a narrator, in fact, is a major player in ‘Hedwig’ and ‘Hamilton,’ too).
Think of Sondheim’s revues-turned-musicals, ‘Company’ and ‘Assassins’: There’s an emotional through-line here, but the material isn’t held together so much by plot developments as it is by emotional and musical ones, provided by the older and wiser Narrator singing for and ruefully looking back on his callow, earlier counterpart, the Youth. We get a complex, double perspective. 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 ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’ 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 hapless life with his pressing ambitions, trying to recreate himself as a new, larger, better persona. But where ‘Tommy’ and ‘Superstar’ mixed this with messianic messages and ‘Jackson’ wrestled with the American presidency, 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 self.
No surpise, then, why this show didn’t catapult into public awareness the way ‘Hedwig’ and ‘Hamilton’ have: It’s uncompromisingly about race. Yet while 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 insistently 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 defining context.
And when it comes to contexts, the Youth soon encounters that classic dilemma: Being black in America is a role that doesn’t fit his personal style at all. He also becomes aware of how many people seem to fit 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 journeys, his epic transformation into the Moor of Venice, admired military hero, 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 — including ‘making’ someone into such a man. 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 its 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 artists.
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’ — if any — bring to this party? In a wickedly funny sequence, the Youth promptly claims the oppressed-gangsta-ghetto-self he never had but which he knows will impress the Germans. The hapless Youth may lack self-knowledge, but he does know this much: Just like going to church without faith, he’s still a fraud. And just like in America, he knows this sales job 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 grab at. When McElroy’s character defiantly declares to his mother he’s leaving for Europe, one half-expects him to admit he’s also 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 while still seeming both dangerous and wonderfully ridiculous.
Standing in for Stew, Calvin Scott Roberts may be playing the guitar more as a prop than anything, but 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 passion, a bit of roaring rock transcendence.
It should sound like the best of Calvin Scott Roberts’ own performance: emotionally committed and casually convincing.