From “Hair” to “Rent” to “Spring Awakening,” composers have sought to reinvigorate musical theater by harnessing the energy and raw expressiveness of rock. But “Passing Strange,” the defiantly unclassifiable musical by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Stew, is something else altogether — a magical mystery tour that fuses aspects of concert, concept album, cabaret and revivalist meeting. Significantly finessed since last year’s Public Theater run, this idiosyncratic odyssey toward self-knowledge explores universal questions of identity with the specificity and wry insight of autobiographical experience. It’s boldly atypical Broadway fare that pulses with a new kind of vitality.
Closer in spirit to the punk rebelliousness and ironic humor of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” than to conventional tuners, the show may be an odd fit in the mainstream commercial landscape and likely will baffle a chunk of the traditional musical audience. No doubt it needs to aggressively court music fans beyond the standard theatergoing pool if it’s to find a niche on Broadway. But in a sector often criticized for its aversion to risk, the producing team deserves kudos for allowing this bracingly original work a broader platform on which to blossom.
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The impressionable innocent at the show’s center is a fictionalized younger stand-in for narrator Stew, known simply as Youth (Daniel Breaker). A Zen Buddhist stranded in 1970s black middle-class Los Angeles, with a mother (Eisa Davis) intent on dragging him to church, he resists her notion of spirituality but has his own religious experience when it dawns on him that gospel music is the root of rock ‘n’ roll.
A further epiphany follows over a shared joint with flamboyant pastor’s son Franklin (Colman Domingo). Franklin’s wistful reflections about bohemian Europe — and the confession that he’s been too chained to his father’s checkbook ever to have traveled anywhere outside his stoned head — cement Youth’s wanderlust.
Smartly juxtaposing Youth’s shallowness with Stew’s more world-weary detachment, the show follows the hero as he bounces from the hippy-dippy hash haze and sexual libertarianism of Amsterdam to a radical-chic, anarchistic artists’ community in Berlin. In both places, the initial elation of outsider acceptance gives way to hollow disappointment.
Like most journeys, Youth’s flight takes him away from home and back again in order to find somewhere he truly belongs. But Stew has little interest in pat resolutions or capsule-form messages.
As the title (lifted from “Othello”) indirectly suggests, “Passing Strange” is about trying on different personas in order to be someone more interesting. Its protagonist is so busy being an artist he neglects to be himself.
This theme and related race questions are most explicit when Youth fabricates ghetto credibility in Berlin, exploiting stereotypes by spinning tales of tough times on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles into a neo-minstrel performance piece. But more subtle forms of role-playing and self-deception are explored throughout the show, examining how what passes for love, pain, art or freedom can be meaningless without full acceptance of one’s own identity.
While the picaresque detail of the hero’s travels already was etched with satirical bite and freshness at the Public, the show’s philosophical and emotional observations were more amoebic. But 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.
They avoid the trap of over-earnestness by maintaining an older-and-wiser vantage point while also indulging their naive central character with the tenderness and compassion needed to make an audience empathize with him and have faith in his eventual maturity.
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. And the switch from the Public’s Anspacher thrust stage to a proscenium further amplifies the atmosphere of an arena rock show.
Designer David Korins’ ingenious device of having each of the four onstage musicians half-submerged in individual mini-pits distances them while at the same time allowing them to interact with the ensemble. And Kevin Adam’s elaborately sculpted, psychotropic lighting is a dynamic spectacle in itself; the reveal of a throbbing wall of fluorescent color when the scene shifts to Amsterdam is breathtaking.
Referencing everything from James Brown to European arthouse cinema to “My Fair Lady,” the music by Stew and bass player Heidi Rodewald genre-hops nimbly between hard-driving rock, garage punk, folk, funk, jazz, gospel and multiple points in between.
Often the musical style springs organically from the narrative — the German interlude has a Kurt Weill flavor; the saucy “We Just Had Sex” recalls the Europop novelty numbers recorded by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in the late ’60s; the protagonist’s awakening from bourgeois L.A. to the hedonistic wonderland of Amsterdam has the call-and-response fervor of religious salvation.
Squat and round, with a shaved head and a tidy goatee, wearing a black suit and red shirt, Stew looks (and often sounds) like a beatnik throwback — he’s like the love child of Allen Ginsberg and Chuck Berry. But whether he’s spanking a guitar or pushing back his glasses to scrutinize his alter ego with a mix of fondness and exasperation, the writer-performer’s unassuming appearance belies an unstudied charisma that’s as relaxed as it is compelling.
While Stew’s ownership of the piece is unequivocal, he steps back throughout and allows the spotlight to linger on each member of the cast.
The appealing Breaker’s light touch never falters, deftly offsetting the posturing pretensions of countercultural hipsterism with his character’s youthful ingenuousness. Davis also creates a fully rounded character of enormous warmth and humanity, funny when she assumes “the Negro dialect” on Sunday mornings and intensely moving when she attempts by phone to reconnect with her long-absent son.
The multi-tasking ensemble’s incisive characterizations are too many to list. But Rebecca Naomi Jones and De’Adre Aziza both register strongly as Youth’s romantic attachments, and the versatile Chad Goodridge brings irrepressible spirit to a handful of distinct personalities. Domingo delivers scene-stealing comic turns as swishy, sadly enslaved Franklin, and demented German performance artist Mr. Venus, who’s like Mos Def channeling Udo Kier.
That bizarre combination in some way reflects the beguiling oddness of a rock performer like Stew in the unlikely context of a Broadway musical. 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.