There are shows that you eagerly anticipate seeing and others that sneak up on you, demanding to be seen. Passing Strange, the blazingly original musical that closed at the Public Theater on Sunday, is one of the latter. "Everybody in my set is talking about it," said my twenty-six year old stepdaughter Anika when I asked if she wanted to see it. Anika's set is young, hip and multicultural and lives in the artistic parts of Harlem, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Fort Greene and Williamsburg. But it wasn't just young bohemians who were talking about the show. A couple of weeks ago, I was having a late dinner at the Broadway canteen Angus McIndoe and the gifted comediennes Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, currently in previews with the Broadway musical Xanadu, were sitting at the next table with friends and they too were talking about Passing Strange. "You gotta see it," I overheard one of them say.
So did the show live up to the hype? Sure did. Anika and I made it to one of the final performances last week and we were both knocked out by it. Part rock concert, part story theater, Passing Strange is a bildungsroman whose protagonist is a young black man coming of age in the 1970s and it refuses to fit neatly into any of the categories set aside for black musicals or any of the stereotypes reserved for describing black life. Instead it explores the experience of the post-Civil Rights generation of suburban black kids, many of whom grew up chanting Buddhist mantras, reading existential writers and listening to both hip-hop and hard rock. Racial identity in Passing Strange isn't political, it's personal. Anika was a city kid but she identified totally.
The show is based on the life of its primary creator, Mark Stewart, a brown-skinned cannonball of a man with explosive talent who goes by the single-name Stew. The music he and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald have written flows from punk and gospel to show tunes and classical, with detours along the way into cabaret, country and Gilbert and Sullivan; the lyrics are the wittiest this side of Sondheim. Stew, who plays electric guitar and narrates the action, was backed up by three jamming onstage musicians and a terrific sextet of actors. Director Annie Dorsen concocted imaginative staging and light designer Kevin Adams used the same style of fluorescent lighting that brilliantly illuminates Spring Awakening to equally good effect in this show (click here to see a YouTube video of highlights from the show). One cast member, Rebecca Naomi Jones, turned out to be a childhood friend Anika hadn't seen in years. But my favorite was Daniel Breaker, who played Stew's teenaged alter-ego with the zany loose-limbered grace of the young Jerry Lewis and the irony-laced, rubber-faced innocence of the young Richard Pryor.
The last time I've seen such a fresh and audacious theatrical debut was when George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum played at the Public in 1986 and I laughed so hard that I literally fell out of my seat. Wolfe, of course, went on to lead the Public for 11 years and to direct such groundbreaking shows as Jelly's Last Jam; Angels in America; Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; Topdog/Underdog and Caroline, or Change. I have no idea what Stew will do next but I do know I intend to be there when he does it. And if you missed him this time around and you love theater, then you ought to do everything you can to be there too.