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 Dan Flavin-style 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 with Theatre Three’s area premiere of Passing Strange, all that bright, performance-art minimalism is gone (the two video screens on David Wash’s set 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, the 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, potent revue-turned-musical. 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.
On Broadway, what Passing Strange did — with admirable ease — was step across all the barriers that have kept rock ‘n’ roll stuck in those other musical theater boxes: the nostalgic jukebox musical (Jersey Boys), the powerful but clunky-art-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).
Basically, the Broadway 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? Rock songs are all three minutes of propulsion and a cloud of dust. Conversely, what kind of story can such a show relate that won’t seem pretentious, silly or formulaic when, along the way, it has to stop to run over 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 in Strange, 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: He was 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 real heart, some knowing irony, 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 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. 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.
This makes clear Stew’s solution to the Great Rock ‘n Roll Musical-Theater Divide: You need a narrator to add character and commentary and keep the story moving (a narrator, in fact, is a major player in both Hedwig and Hamilton).
So Passing Strange plays like a revue-turned-rock-musical, but the material isn’t held together so much by the autobiographical plot. It’s the way that the older and wiser Narrator-Stew ruefully looks back on the Youthful-Stew, even as he sings for that callow, earlier counterpart. This is what gives the show its emotional development. We get a double perspective, a give-and-take, lending life to Stew’s struggles.
Like The Who’s Tommy, like Jesus Christ Superstar, Passing Strange is another rock ‘n’ roll story of a wannabe star trying to match his life with his pressing ambitions to recreate himself as a newer, grander, better persona. But where Tommy and Superstar mixed personal growth with messianic messages and rock celebrity, the central struggle in Passing Strange is over Blackness: what it means to be African-American, 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 racism, 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. 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 ‘passing’ — passing as Black or as true believers (in religion, in protest, in art). 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 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 artists-as-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.
But 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 much 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 or confess he’s imitating 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:’Tis wondrous pitiful. 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, losing some of Stew’s authority to command the stage. 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 the best of Roberts’ performance: gutsy, committed and casually convincing.