“OK, we’re gonna play some music,” says the man on the stage, matter of factly. And he proceeds to do just that, and much more, in Passing Strange, the inventive and thoroughly enjoyable musical currently playing at the Belasco Theater. Written by the rock and roll musician and singer Stew, the play is the somewhat fictionalized autobiography of Stew. It tells the story of a young man (named only “The Youth” in the casting) seeking artistic and spiritual fulfillment in his life, and it is set to fantastic rock music. Young, black and paralyzed in an upper-middle-class existence in Los Angeles, the Youth longs for escape from this drudgery and the ability to seek a meaningful existence.
The Pippin-like quest for meaning unfolds in California, Amsterdam and Berlin, as he experiments with drugs, sex and art. He is going to write music. He is seeking fulfillment. He is seeking meaning. He is seeking what is real.
Narrated by Stew, the Youth’s story follows the actions expected of it – he falls in love, he experiments with drugs, he has his heart broken once or twice, and he redefines himself many times. But what keeps the show from becoming just another story is its delightful sense of humor, much of which can be credited to the Narrator’s delivery and commentary on the show Clad in a tidy black suit and black Converse sneakers, with yellow-tinted sunglasses adorning his round, roly-poly face, Stew is a wry, ambiguous and all-knowing narrator – just right for this show.
Passing Strange is completely unapologetic. It makes fun of everyone and everything – including itself. As the Youth announces his decision to move to Amsterdam, the Narrator tells the audience that this is when he would burst into a typical Broadway melody of exploration and self-discovery. However, as he helpfully explains, he doesn’t write that stuff. Instead, they proceed to mock European avant-guard cinema. Another moment of brilliance takes place when the Youth and his friends inform the audience through a sarcastic, sprightly melody, “We just had sex.”
The Youth is played with admirable effort and spirit by Daniel Breaker, whose wide-eyed, open face and loose, gangly limbs are put to great use. He is abounding with energy, but he doesn’t know what to do with it yet. He wants to make an impact on the world, but he’s not quite sure how to. But he will – don’t you doubt that. He is sympathetic, but also self-centered and even annoying at times. But Breaker accomplishes the task of causing him to actually grow and develop over a short period of time. By the end of the show, he truly has been taken on a journey. This character is not altogether likeable, but he is believable.
He is joined onstage by an exuberant company of supporting actors who play various roles throughout the show. Especially compelling is Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays one of his friends in Amsterdam and his mentor and lover in Berlin. Her large, knowing eyes and soaring voice are a welcome addition to Broadway, and it will be interesting to see what she is capable of in other roles. Eisa Davis gives a heartfelt performance as his long-suffering mother, and De’Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, and Chad Goodridge round off the company with well-performed supporting roles.
The show is in a loose, abstract form, with the entire company and band onstage at all times. (The band is sunk into the stage, so only their shoulders and heads are visible. But not to worry – with the singing and playing they do, you won’t forget that they are there). When they are not acting in scenes or singing backup, they are sitting or lying all over the stage. The only props used are a table and a few chairs. However, this does not prove to be distracting but instead enhances the tone of the piece for the first two-thirds of it.
Sadly, it is during the conclusion of the show that it begins to falter. As the Youth learns of a family tragedy and returns to California, an attempt to combine absolution and abstraction falters and the structure of the show crumbles as a result. The delight of watching a play that did not take itself too seriously begins to disappear, and the conclusion is haphazard and overly artistic. But this does not overshadow the accomplishments of the first two-thirds of the show, and the exuberance of the company that maintains through the conclusion is contagious.
The play is a truly unique product, and a wonderful one at that. With Rent leaving Broadway this year and Spring Awakening firmly ensconced at the Eugene O’Neil Theater, Passing Strange might just be the next new thing on Broadway.
“By the way, can we crash on your couch tonight?” Stew asks in the middle of one of his songs. And after watching his show, I was about to say yes.