A pleasingly wayward young man’s odyssey that may or may not bear some autobiographical resemblance to writer, lyricist, co-composer and cast member Stew’s own backstory, “Passing Strange” is musical theater in the conceptual-concert-plus mode of “Hedwig.” Then again, its meta-theater playfulness and penchant for deftly parodying music/performance genres recall “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me,” while conversely, the earnest pursuit of self-definition in racial and artistic terms echoes down a long African-American Hall of Playwriting Fame. “Passing” has a lot going on — much of it delightful. But this ambitious, not-so-deep-as-it-is-long tuner also needs work before its New York bow in January.
A co-production of current host Berkeley Rep and imminent one the Public Theater, “Passing Strange” suggests Stew and longtime musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald (who wears several hats here) didn’t have far to travel from pop to legit stage. Their “multidisciplinary cabaret ensemble” the Negro Problem always had one foot in theatricality and audio role-playing. “Strange” is a lot like a live concept album — and like most concept albums, plot is not its strongest point.
Youth (Daniel Breaker) is a discontented teen in late 1970s Los Angeles, nagged by his single Mother (Eisa Davis). Though herself intimidated by the weekly “Baptist Fashion Show” of gossipy regulars, mom duly nags junior into church one Sunday, where he has a religious experience moved by rock ‘n’ roll gospel. He’s drafted into the youth choir, finding an unlikely mentor in flamboyant minister’s son Franklin (Colman Domingo), who spends his secular time smoking pot and rhapsodizing over sophisticated European cultures he’ll never have the nerve to visit.
After forming a punk band with choirmates Sherry (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Terry (Chad Goodridge), and over mom’s strenuous objections, high school grad Youth fulfills Franklin’s dream. He lands in Amsterdam, where he’s blown away by his instant acceptance into the boho cafe and squatter scene — particularly when waitress Mariana (de’Adre Aziza) casually, seductively proffers “Keys” to her apartment and bed.
But Youth came here to find his own artistic voice, and several stoned months later realizes this hippie-redux paradise is a bore. After intermission, he starts over in Berlin, where the vibe is anything but laid-back. Here, art is inextricably linked with anarcho politics, with one character memorably announcing, “My porno films feature fully clothed men making business deals.”
Taken in by a radical collective that ridicules his apathetic politics, he hits on a genius trump card: What white European dares criticize an African-American from the projects as not knowing everything about oppression? “Passing for ghetto,” Youth makes a hit among art-damaged hipsters, though his pursuit of “the real” seems more off-course than ever. As Mother’s pleading come-home calls remind him, he’s as middle class as they come.
“Passing Strange” is full of hilarious set-pieces (like a teenage LSD freakout and Youth’s Berlin minstrel turn as “The Black One”), catchy songs, witty lyrics and dialogue. But the rather superficial journey is a bit overlong. Running themes meant to supply depth (Youth’s quest for “the real me,” Mother’s insistence that this can best be found at home) feel uninspired. Occasional lulls and a couple of dull numbers could be trimmed in co-creator/director Annie Dorsen’s otherwise vital, imaginative production.
One thing must go for sure: After providing so many highlights, the evening inexplicably ends with a mock Germanic “Drinking Song” whose generic toast “Let’s laugh and dance and sing” hits the show’s single flattest note in emotional, lyrical and melodic terms.
Band musicians are onstage throughout — in a striking effect, four are hydraulically lowered waist-deep after an opening ditty — often interacting with the thesps in amusing ways. The fifth, pinstripe-suited, porkpie-hatted guitarist, Stew himself, makes a droll narrator and scold for Breaker’s irrepressible alter-ego. All thesps get standout vocal and character moments, though nothing could top Domingo’s industrial-strength-performance-art ode to “Surface” as leather-clad Berlin gender-bender Mr. Venus.
A late addition to the creative team, choreographer Karole Armitage contributes pop-culture riffs to a show that rarely sits still. Annie Smart’s costumes delight in a similar vein. David Korins’ set design is purposely bare bones with the major exception of a dazzling all-neon back wall first revealed when Youth reaches Amsterdam.