March 12, 2008

A New Rite of Passage for "Passing Strange"

There are few things more annoying than having someone tell you how great something—a restaurant, a country, a show—was before you got to it. So, I’m going to ask your forgiveness right now because I have to say that I enjoyed Passing Strange, the vibrant rock musical that opened on Broadway last week, more when I saw it downtown at the Public Theater last year and put it in on my list of the best shows I’d seen in all of 2007 (click here to read my original response to the show).

Passing Strange is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young black man coming of age in the 1970s and struggling to find his identity. It’s set against music that runs the gamut from punk and gospel to blues and show tunes. Its creator, narrator and chief onstage musician who goes by the one-handled moniker Stew is as engaging a presence as you’re likely to find anywhere on Broadway this year. “It’s O.K., you can talk back. I’m not a character,” he told the audience at the beginning of the performance my niece Jennifer and I attended. But no one talked back. In fact, no one did much of anything. I found myself moving in my seat to the music but I felt self-conscious because although they seemed to be enjoying the show, everyone else in the audience—the usual Broadway crowd of pale skins and grey heads—just sat there, applauding at the end of songs, standing at the end of the show.

That’s not the way it was at the Public. The audiences there were young and multi-hued. And they were into the show, rocked out to its music. Maybe that’s why I liked it better down there. Or it might be because the setting at the Public was more intimate, with the audience surrounding the stage. Or because the show seems to have cut or tightened some scenes for its transfer uptown. But it’s probably because it is hard to repeat the excitement of experiencing something so unique with the same intensity that you had when you first discovered it.

But if you haven’t yet had your first time and you love musicals and care about their future, you should see Passing Strange. After all, even if you didn’t eat at the trendsetting chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse when it was just a Berkeley hangout in the 1970s, it’s still a great place to dine. And if you didn’t go to China when everyone there was still wearing Mao jackets and riding bicycles, it’s still a fascinating country to visit. And if you didn’t see Passing Strange downtown, it’s still likely to be the most extraordinary experience you’ll have on Broadway this season.

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