EmptyBelasco Theater, New York
"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.
This semi-autobiographical, semi-staged musical features a book and lyrics by the acclaimed singer-songwriter Stew (Heidi Rodewald collaborated on the music), and it seemed far more at home in the confines of the Public Theater, where it played last year. But like the current hit "Spring Awakening," it may well succeed in its clear attempt to bring new, younger audiences to the Great White Way.
The physically imposing, bespectacled musician serves as the show's narrator and, accompanied by an onstage four-piece band, sings a good portion of the evening's nearly two-dozen numbers.
A talented six-performer ensemble, led by the terrific Daniel Breaker playing the composer's alter ego, act out the story of a young black man growing up with a single mother (Eisa Davis) in Los Angeles who discovers his love for music via the funky services at his local church.
Rebelling against his middle-class upbringing, he starts a punk rock band and eventually moves to Amsterdam. There he is dazzled by the abundant sex and drugs that are readily available (expressing his joyful wonderment in one of the show's best numbers, the raucously funny "We Just Had Sex").
He then moves to Berlin, becoming a part of the city's ultra-bohemian artistic scene and accentuating his blackness -- or, as one of his fellow artists puts it, "passing for ghetto" -- in order to bolster his artistic cred. But a personal tragedy eventually helps him to overcome his youthful shallowness and self-absorption.
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.
But there's no denying the quality of the hard-driving, stylistically eclectic rock score, with the evening's best number, the hard-driving "Amsterdam," proving a true show-stopper. The fluid staging by Annie Dorsen and the minimal but energetic choreography by Karole Armitage add greatly to the show's impact. And the six-person ensemble, led by the highly engaging creator/narrator, deliver terrific performances.
Presented by the Shubert Organization, Elizabeth Ireland McCann Llc., Bill Kenwright, Chase Mishkin, Barbara & Buddy Freitag, Broadway Across America, Emily Fisher Landau, Peter May, Boyett Ostar, Elle Hirschfeld/Jed Bernstein, Wendy Federman/Jackie Florin, Spring Sirkin/Ruth Hendel, Vasi Laurence/Pat Flicker Addiss and Joey Parnes in association with the Public Theater and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Book and lyrics: Stew
Music: Stew, Heidi Rodewald
Director: Annie Dorsen
Choreography: Karole Armitage
Scenic design: David Korins
Costume design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lighting design: Kevin Adams
Sound design: Tom Morse
Youth: Daniel Breaker
Edwina, Marianna, Sudabey: De'Adre Aziza
Mother: Eisa Davis
Mr. Franklin, Joop, Mr. Venus: Colman Domingo
Terry, Christophe, Hugo: Chad Goodridge
Sherry, Renata, Desi: Rebecca Naomi Jones