The achievement of rock musical “Passing Strange” is even more exciting because its creators are essentially novices. Sure, singer-songwriter Stew and his partner, composer Heidi Rodewald, have made a name for themselves in the music world, releasing several albums of cabaret, folk and pop songs that made an underground impact. But before the Public and Berkeley Rep co-commissioned this piece, which was created with director Annie Dorsen, Stew and Rodewald had no experience as dramatists. No matter. The first time is the charm.
When “Passing Strange” preemed in Berkeley last October, critics complained that the semi-autobiographical work was unfocused and overlong. Rewrites have made it sharp and effective, both as visceral entertainment and an intellectual statement on race and performance.
Stew himself anchors the proceedings. In the middle of a square stage, with one of his band members stationed on all four sides, he announces he’ll be narrating a concert-style story of a black teenager who flees his home in 1970s Los Angeles to go “find himself” in Europe. Then the band sinks halfway into the floor, the actors burst from the wings, and the action begins.
The story is simple. A young man called Youth (Daniel Breaker) races through the world, seeking a connection with his surroundings, before realizing the place he abandoned is where he belongs. Events progress in a clear, straight line, and the sad revelations of the final minutes, though affecting, aren’t exactly surprising.
But the show has too much life to feel familiar.
Take the music: Full of imperfect singing and loud, messy instruments, the songs are honest-to-god rock ‘n’ roll, boiling with energy whether they’re sung by characters or by Stew himself, who often leaves his narrator’s perch to work the crowd.
When Youth travels to Amsterdam, for instance, he revels in the sudden legality of drugs and prostitution. As he’s cavorting, the cast tears through the gospel-tinged anthem “Welcome to Amsterdam,” and by the end of the song, Stew is singing directly to the audience, belting the refrain “We say it’s alright.”
As Stew’s voice wails over the music’s driving rhythm, it’s like the song is launching off the ground. Even though Youth is dabbling with a dangerous life, it’s easy to accept the music’s glorious assertion that he’s liberated, that he’ll be all right.
That sentiment points to the sophistication of the show’s writing and direction. Eventually, Youth feels isolated by Amsterdam’s hedonism, just as he feels let down by his hipster friends in Berlin, who refuse to hate their families the way he wants to hate his own. But though every community he tries to penetrate eventually leaves him wanting, the production always captures those first few moments of hope that these new people, finally, will give him a home.
Youth’s renewable faith gives “Passing Strange” a persistent tenderness. Stew is a cerebral writer, lacing most scenes with critiques of black culture or artistic snobbery, but he has obvious affection for the naive kid — based largely on himself — who doesn’t realize he’s being duped by flashy notions of rebellion. This gives Stew’s arguments a humanity that makes them just as accessible as drama as they are as social analysis.
The cast matches the material. Breaker is a charming lead, and, as his mother, Eisa Davis evinces unflinching love. Colman Domingo plays multiple roles, but he’s most notable as Mr. Franklin, a closeted gay choir director at Youth’s L.A. church who teaches the boy how to smoke his first joint. Domingo masters the mix of pain and dignity in a man who can be neither himself nor like everyone else.
As it does in “Spring Awakening,” Kevin Adams’ lighting deepens the emotional phases of the work, especially when a bulb-covered wall — crafted with set designer David Korins — goes haywire in Amsterdam and Berlin.
The raw power of the design — along with the political insights, excellent songs and vulnerable heart — suggests “Passing Strange” could join “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” as a punk musical milestone.