Friday, February 29, 2008

Passing Strange (The SOB Review)

Passing Strange (The SOB Review) - Belasco Theatre, New York, NY

**** (out of ****)

Shout "Hallelujah!" high to the heavens, for the absolute best, most cosmic musical of the year has arrived!

Strangely enough, it comes in one of the most unusual, unexpected shows I think I've ever seen. Perhaps it's fitting that Passing Strange, which opened last evening at Broadway's out-of-the-way Belasco Theatre, is off the beaten path, for it succeeds in taking the Great White Way in an entirely new, infinitely intelligent direction.

And it's not just that Passing Strange has a laid-back California meets pulsating Amsterdam by way of a Berlin vibe -- and trust me, I've been to all three places to know firsthand.

It's that its trajectory brilliantly takes a bohemian base and infuses gospel, rock, punk and soul music into a delicious, simmering hot, heterogeneous -- and anything but bourgeois -- bouillabaisse, compliments of a musician named Stew. This exacting artist (his real name is Mark Stewart) takes us on a wild trip quasi-strolling through an astral plain, expertly telling the story of his own formative adult years with such humor, passion and grace that I found myself tearing up many times over as chills shot down my spine.

While others might dub this "Early Summer Awakening," the fantastical journey (sorry Stew) offered by Passing Strange's stellar cast and heavenly score makes this a celestial voyage worth taking. Making it all the more worthwhile is the realization that this is largely a true personal account from Stew of his early adulthood laced with enough wry wit and beautiful, clever score to leave you on a real high long after it's over.

I'll be honest with you. Before I broke the news about Passing Strange's own ride to Broadway last year, I had never heard of Stew or Heidi Rodewald (who collaborated on the score) or their band, the Negro Problem. So when the show began, I had no idea what to expect.

Initial appearances proved deceiving as Stew and his band took to the stage in full concert mode. But it soon gave way to Stew's folksy storytelling of his alter ego, Youth -- a younger version of himself played with awkward charm by Daniel Breaker. (Allow me to pause here to tell you that a sensational new stage star has emerged in an astonishing breakthrough role. Breaker conveys volumes with a simple roll of his eyes and displays a natural presence found far too infrequently. There is a Tony nod in his future.)

Set against a distinct backdrop of black and white, the younger Stew feels trapped, pigeon-holed into an existence where the color of one's skin is the defining factor -- oh, and by the way, he happens to be African American. Yet he finds his passage to his future through an unlikely source. Stew's loving mother (a lovely Eisa Davis) compels him to become more involved with his church. However, she gets more than she bargained for when the minister's son (Colman Domingo, who exceptionally takes on various roles within the show) turns him on quite literally to all the world's possibilities, one toke at a time, freeing him to begin his quest to find life's deeper meaning.

Just as Moses showed the way to the Promised Land without ever reaching it himself, the minister's son inspires the young Stew to take off for Amsterdam. For the first time in my theatregoing experience, I actually felt my seat vibrate as if I were with him on the flight's take-off. To say the least, Tom Morse's sound design literally rocks.

Once he lands in Amsterdam, David Korins' stark black-and-white set design gives way to vivid colors where ironically, skin color no longer seems to matter. (The tune "Amsterdam" underscores how exceptionally Stew and Rodewell excel at moving the story forward with inventive, smart lyrics buttressed by hook after musical hook.)

And after expanding his mind with a coffeeshop cluster of colorful individuals, our Youth advances to the punk side of Berlin. And lives to tell about it.

Often veering toward the existential, this ethereal odyssey ultimately dares to proclaim that you actually can go home again. But it's delivered with the caveat that you'll be all the richer for having not only dared to dream big, but especially choosing to live even larger.

For that and its glorious score, I couldn't help but fall head over heels in love with this smoke-hazed tale. Far from strange, I look forward to passing this way again.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Broadway's Strange Opening Night (February 28, 2008)
Strange Stagefellows (February 20, 2008)
Passing Strange Jersey Boys And Rock 'N' Roll: Downbeat Box Office (February 19, 2008)
Stranger Things Have Happened! (October 19, 2007)
Passing Strange To Broadway? (October 16, 2007)

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2 Comments:

At 29 February, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Wow, I have got to see this! I don't think you've ever been so absolutely, passionately, over-the-moon ecstatic about a new musical. I know there are shows you've loved, but this is a whole new level!

And the best thing is, you had no idea what to expect going in, so it was a total surprise! Thanks to Stew and company, it sounds like you got your theater mojo back!

I just hope it finds an audience and sticks around long enough so that I can see it!

 
At 29 February, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Yes, thanks to Stew & Co., I most definitely got my theatre mojo back (but it also helped going to see August: Osage County again, too)! I'll be posting my critics' capsule shortly, but suffice to say, this show has got major critical mojo behind it now.

 

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