"The difference between this and a party at my house is that there are no fish tacos," said Stew, the Tony-winning coauthor of the musical Passing Strange and a host of other upcoming shows, at the beginning of his set at 54 Below. With a band nearly numbering ten, The New Stew Review premiered tunes from Stew's new pieces, including Family Album, Brooklyn Omnibus, and The Total Bent.
The two-hour show was very much in keeping with Stew's inimitable style, rambling and sprawling all over the place, and excitingly spontaneous. Rather than working his way down a pre-written set list, Stew spent the evening rifling through a ream of song sheets, picking out the ones that would best highlight his special guests. This group included Passing Strange veterans Rebecca Naomi Jones and Eisa Davis, as well as Total Bent stars David Cale and Vondie Curtis-Hall.
Cale and Curtis-Hall's preview of The Total Bent, a show that premiered as part of The Public Theater's 2012 PublicLab series and will see a full production later this year, was among the highlights of a concert filled to the brim with great moments. So too was Davis' rendition of "Love Lotto," (from the song cycle Brooklyn Omnibus), about a woman who falls in love with a hipster barista in a Bushwick coffee joint. Jones brought her ethereal vocals to a brief passage from Shakespeare's Othello, while Alex Emanuel brought fire to "Dark Sex," a song that features the great lyric "I'll have some very dark sex with you and never see you again." Luqman Brown wowed the sold-out crowd with a tune from Family Album, which will premiere this summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Lyrically, Stew's tunes are jaw-dropping in their exploration of themes and stories that the works of most contemporary songwriters don't really explore. Case in point, "Florida, Ya Kill Me," a stunning response to the Trayvon Martin case that alternates between laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad. Three hundred and sixty degrees away from that one, "Flatbush Avenue on Sunday" is as good a song about the diversity of New York City as has ever been written (and a direct descendant of Rodgers & Hart's "Manhattan"). The music, most of which was written with longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, is unapologetic rock with complex melodies and the all-important ability to get people's heads banging.
As an encore, Stew duetted with Davis on "Keys" from Passing Strange, a musical the entire audience was chomping at the bit to hear from — to the point that one or two people started screaming "Do Passing Strange!" Though in typical Stew fashion, he played off the heckling off very well. "If you want a Passing Strange reunion concert, find some investors," he said, before launching into a new jam. When you've written as much as he has, you can only look ahead.