Review by John Delamar
Broadway has been waiting and preparing for the arrival of Passing Strange since Hair first swirled and jigged its way into the musical theatre cannon. Shows like Spring Awakening and Rent have both paved the way and prepped Broadway audiences for the musical experience of this season and of seasons to come.
Following the journey of an expatriated youth from South Central, LA to Amsterdam then onto Berlin, Passing Strange, the brain child of award winning songwriter Stew and his collaborator, Heidi Rodewald, is a rocking raucus musical concert. That's the only way that the show can really be described, a musical concert. From the moment Stew and his band take the stage the audience is welcomed into the world of Passing Strange the way that concert goers are welcomed to a jam session. And the great thing is that it works on so many levels. You leave the Belasco feeling enlivened, entertained, educated, and encouraged to pursue the things in life that make you feel love gain and live. Like all great storytelling there is the moral lesson to be taken from the experience, but not without a feeling of growth and learning.
Accolades will only follow this riveting production, finding its home on Broadway from The Public Theatre, where it received an honored off-Broadway run. Thankfully the show transfered with no cast changes, and little alterations from the original concept. The same energy that was found at The Public can be found at the Belasco nightly. Unconventional as it may be, convention is the evil that our hero fights against, finding that the struggle to make art is in the understanding of yourself.
The beauty of the production is akin to that of Mamma Mia!, a strange comparison, agreed, but when you look around the theatre at the curtain call or through any of the show’s more upbeat, lively numbers, what you see are audience members, young and old, bobbing their heads, tapping their feet in time. It’s a testament, I think, to what a real magical moment has been created, when everyone goes on the journey not, just watching, but really experiencing the joy and grief of the characters. A show that wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but one that grabs everyone by the hand and leads them through a drug induced dance. And you smile all the way, with Stew leading, you can’t help but love the movement.
Kevin Adams, lighting designer for Passing Strange as well as last season’s Spring Awakening, has done it once again, stealing the show. Adam’s lighting design takes the audience in and warms them as our leading man goes from mundane LA to the orgiastic Amsterdam, and the cool Berlin. There is a moment when, as absurd as it is to applaud a set piece, when the show literally stops for Adams’ artwork of lighting design. That’s the thing, Adams doesn’t just light he creates, and it’s shows like Passing Strange that allow great artistry like Adams’ show through, allowing it to be the focus and then sharing the stage with effortless grace.
It may be too soon, the nominations aren’t even out yet, to cast Tony predictions, but its hard to think of any other show that can hold a candle to the power and emotion of Passing Strange, and I think that’s just fine, hand that Tony over now, guys. And Stew, get your mantle ready. It’s the power house that is Stew that holds the piece together. It’s Stew, giving everything to the art, to the real, that drives this show home emotionally and as well as a good time.
If you step back and look at Passing Strange, all the pieces floating around in the pot, the rock, the R and B, the performance art, the theatre what you have is a jumble of spices that make for one of the most delicious Broadway “stews” in a long time. Enjoy.