You’ll probably like the musical Passing Strange. That sounds condescending, but it isn’t. I actually am only saying it because I think I was the only person in the theatre on Friday who wasn’t crazy about it. Everyone around me was raving about the singing, the story, the everything. The show is good, but it didn’t quite live up to its hype—or the excitment of the crowd around me. It might have been the off-key singing, or the pat clichés, or all of the above.
Let’s start at the beginning. Passing Strange is a semi-autobiographical musical by singer-songwriter Mike Stewart, a.k.a. Stew, the frontman for the power pop band The Negro Problem. He’s also released several solo albums, notably Guest Host, his 2000 album that was roundly praised and won Album of the Year kudos from Entertainment Weekly (as did his 2002 album The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs).
The Narrator, originally played by Stew in New York (now played by the wonderfully entertaining Charles Glen), recounts his youth from about age 14 to about 22. Keith Parker plays “Youth” (no, not “the Youth”) the younger version of the narrator. Talichia Noah plays his mother, and the remaining four cast members pick up different parts as needed, either as Youth’s church choir buddies, or the free spirits he meets in Amsterdam. Young Stew travels across two continents looking for “the real” and trying to find himself as an artist.
This is where the play borders on brilliant. In his quest to find “the real,” Youth falls in with an artist commune in Berlin, where students are trying to revolutionize the world through art. When they start to question Youth’s credentials, he tells them that he’s more revolutionary than any of them because he’s black and oppressed, and grew up poor in a dangerous neighborhood, with gangs all around him. None of this is true, but it highlights the futility of Youth’s pursuit. A quest for “the real” is only taking him away from what’s true.
When tragedy strikes at home, Youth returns to L.A. and tries to make sense of what he experienced.
“Life is a mistake that only art can correct,” Youth finally concludes. And the narrator insists that Youth was “looking for something in life that can only be found in art.”
I’m all for thoughtful fare about meaning, truth, and art, but the play only goes halfway. How can “the real” be in art, something that is so patently not real? How can art correct life’s mistakes? Fine, those questions are probably better left to some philosophical post-structuralism graduate paper. But Passing Strange should at least shun easy remedies and pat answers. It doesn’t. From the free spirits in Amsterdam who have promiscuous threesomes to the growling militant Germans demanding to see Youth’s “Ausweis,” the play has its fair share of groan-worthy clichés. And in the end, the whole dilemma is so nicely answered. Youth discovers that love is what’s real—hardly groundbreaking stuff.
Still, the play had moments. Charles Glenn, who sings through most of the production, was brilliant as the charming, sarcastic narrator, who in the end muses, “You know, it’s weird when you wake up that morning and realize your entire adult life was based on a decision made by a teenager—a stoned teenager.”
Youth Keith Parker was another stand-out performance (in general, the men seemed to be having more fun than the ladies). While he was all right as an actor—he hit his marks, delivered his lines and was convincing enough to make the play watchable—he really shined (or shone?) as a singer. This kid can sing, I mean really sang. Most of the singing was done by Glenn (who certainly didn’t disappoint) but every time Parker had to belt one out, it was a highlight.
Finally, John Reed II, who played the closeted teenage son of the pastor at the Youth’s Baptist church and a half-deranged performance artist was another highlight. A full five minutes of the musical is Reed stalking up and down the stage yelling with a growly, campy German accent “What’s inside is just a lie.” Yes, I thought it would get tiresome. No, it really didn’t.
Unfortunately, the ladies dropped the ball, and the play sagged when they had their solo moments. Talichia Noah, as the mother, hit a lot of wrong notes, as did Andrea Purnell when singing about giving her key to Youth so he could stay with her in Amsterdam. It was nothing short of a relief when those bits were over and Glenn was back on the mic.
Overall, there is a lot to like here. There’s humor, tons of good music (though nothing really stays with you after you leave the theatre) and it’s more thoughtful than a lot of musical schlock. If you don’t over think it, it actually is passing good.