Friday, February 29, 2008

Did Critics Provide Passing Grades To Passing Strange?

Did Critics Provide Passing Grades To Passing Strange?

Last evening, Broadway's most offbeat musical Passing Strange opened at the Belasco Theatre to some bona fide critical raves (including mine), although there were some dissents.

The show is based on the early adult years of musician Stew (née Mark Stewart) with music he co-wrote with Heidi Rodewald. Directed by Annie Dorsen and choreographed by Karole Armitage, the tuner stars Daniel Breaker (pictured) as Stew's younger self, along with De'Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones.

Calling "it wonderful, and a welcome anomaly on Broadway," Charles Isherwood in The New York Times sounds the clarion call: "Although it is far richer in wit, feeling and sheer personality than most of what is classified as musical theater in the neighborhood around Times Square these days, its big heart throbs to the sound of electric guitars, searing synthesizer chords, driving drums and lyrics delivered not in a clean croon but a throaty yelp....Stew brings an invigorating new perspective to the classic coming-of-age narrative. He brings a gently satiric touch too..... This jumpy character -- in the text he is simply called Youth -- is portrayed by the sensational Daniel Breaker, whose performance has grown tremendously since the Off Broadway run."

Asserting that "It's boldly atypical Broadway fare that pulses with a new kind of vitality," Variety's David Rooney heaps on the laurels: "Stew and director/co-creator Annie Dorsen have fine-tuned the material, adding definition and removing most of the lulls from the previously rambling second act in particular....Dorsen's achievement here in giving the episodic musical a satisfying shape cannot be overstated. Working with choreographer Karole Armitage, she creates something propulsive and viscerally exciting out of minimalist staging....The appealing Breaker's light touch never falters, deftly offsetting the posturing pretensions of countercultural hipsterism with his character's youthful ingenuousness.... Whether this personal yet joyously inclusive show is a first step into the form or a one-time excursion, Passing Strange breaks the mold with electrifying inventiveness."

Offering that "Strange is truly unlike anything you've seen on Broadway," USA Today's Elysa Gardner hails the show in her three-and-a-half star review: "Stew actually sends up cultural sacred cows, from performance art to punk rock. Racial stereotypes, too, are cleverly evoked and debunked, and there are lighthearted jabs at musical theater itself. But Strange is no snark fest. Stew and Rodewald reject the sentimentality and bombast that some rock-influenced writers bring to Broadway, and their work has more of the emotional intuition and melodic invention that distinguish great musicals than anything Andrew Lloyd Webber or his acolytes have come up with. Strange's humor and heart are enhanced by the cast. Daniel Breaker makes Youth lovable despite his narcissism, and manages a funny, touching rapport with Stew, the narrator."

Praising it as "all smart and all enjoyable and all very good for the theater," Newsday's Linda Winer clearly enjoyed the show: "What's inside is what gives this surface its remarkable traction. Annie Dorsen, a downtown director in her mainstream debut, keeps the seriously comic action -- to use Stew's favorite word -- real. With little more than a few chairs and a back wall (by David Korins) of jukebox neon lights, the show manages to create at least three different communities of unpredictable individuals with complex internal lives and worldviews. Karole Armitage, a veteran modern-dance choreographer, gives raucous energy to purposefully haphazard running, sliding and spinning for joy. No Broadway unisons here....When Youth tries to impress his German friends with his ghetto-warrior 'Identity Song,' the thing turns out to be a vaudeville....Nobody gets naked here, but everyone is exposed."

Proclaiming it "a hell of a good time," The New York Sun's Eric Grode is mostly positive: "It's a witty, boisterous, often heretical dissection of racial identity in all its modern-day fluidity....Director Annie Dorsen has recalibrated the performances of her excellent original cast for the larger space....Mr. Breaker has that exceedingly rare ability to make post-adolescent self-involvement and sanctimoniousness endearing, and he and Stew have developed an easy rapport that wasn't evident last year. When Youth grabs Stew's microphone during a climactic realization, taking brief ownership of his future, the effect is both offhanded and riveting."

Citing this as "one of the more audacious attempts to bring rock 'n' roll to Broadway," Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter is largely upbeat: "[W]hat it lacks in cohesion and theatrical imagination, it makes up for with musical passion and energy....[T]here'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."

Labeling Passing Strange an "exuberant if flawed show," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News offers a mixed assessment: "[T]he story feels familiar and smacks of warmed-over 'Wizard of Oz.' The stocky, bald Stew wears hipster shades and a dark suit as he narrates, sings and strums guitar. But he might as well be dressed in Dorothy Gale gingham and ruby slippers.
What makes the show fresh is the music, which Stew wrote with Heidi Rodewald. Its rhythms and sounds go from hard-thumping rock and groovy blues to funk, punk and gospel....Daniel Breaker is magnetic as the Youth. Eisa Davis adds hilarity and heartache as his caring, churchgoing mother."

Concluding that "although Broadway may not be (Stew's) alley, his offbeat beatness would be a delight to encounter in cabaret," New York Post's Clive Barnes nevertheless musters up two and a half stars: "It's also beautifully performed by a beguiling cast -- fun people to be with, even if one has to be with them rather longer than one might have planned....This is a conceit less strange than the show's authors try to suggest: Self-invention is often a prelude to self-identification. Yet, for all its conventionality, Stew's book and particularly his lyrics are witty and pointed. He has a dry sense of humor that's perfectly on-target, and stands back from these presumably autobiographical vignettes with a wry but calculated modesty."

Overall, given the praise that has been showered on Passing Strange, the question now is whether audiences will finally discover it and make it their own. Certainly, it does not help that the Belasco is on the other side of Broadway, away from the glare of most theatres. But it certainly deserves four times more than the 23.5% capacity crowd it drew last week.

So, if you're smart, I'd advise you to get thee right away to get tickets while excellent seats are still available. I'm sure they won't last long.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Passing Strange (The SOB Review) (February 29, 2008)
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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