As if further proof was needed, a new show with a downtown rock 'n' roll sensibility, Passing Strange, has arrived to confirm the trend. This fine and funky autobiographical rock musical, co-created by the performance artist Stew and collaborators Heidi Rodewald and Annie Dorsen -- has just opened at The Public Theater (the birthplace of Hair) after an earlier engagement this year at Berkeley Rep.
Passing Strange is as much the portrait of a musical artist as a young man as it is a self-conscious redefinition of the musical theater art form. Style and content merge in this piece to describe the journey of a young African-American man in search of his destiny. It's precisely because he is searching for himself through music that his journey takes him through the whirlwind of cutting-edge American and European musical styles that begins with gospel and travels through punk, blues, jazz, and rock.
This deceptively simple story takes place on a square stage with a four-piece band in plain view, each musician on one outer side of the square, facing into the center. At center stage is Stew, himself, as the story's self-proclaimed narrator. His youthful alter ego is played with innocent charm by Daniel Breaker. The teenager begins in rebellion against his mother, magnificently played by the transcendent Eisa Davis. She wants him to go to church, but he has found Buddhism. Nonetheless, she drags him to church where the gospel music takes hold of him. So does the attention of a sexy young girl (De'Adre Aziza) who lures him into the church choir.
From there on in, music and sex become his double helix. He goes from one new girlfriend to the next just as he moves from one musical style to the next. In the show's most emotionally powerful sequence, he has an epiphany when a young woman in Amsterdam (also played by Aziza) trusts him with the keys to her apartment. The music is as touching as the love affair it engenders.
The story goes on to Berlin, where music and politics meet. Our young protagonist becomes a star of sorts; but, to do so, he passes himself off as a disadvantaged, struggling young man from "the projects" when, in fact, he grew up in a house and lived an essentially middle class life. Passing of one kind or another is the subtext of the piece, and this self-aware show finally comes full circle when our young hero finally must come home to his roots.
Stew tells this tale making no concessions to musical theater expectations. He tells the audience at one dramatic plot turn that there is usually a certain kind of song at that moment, but since he doesn't know how to write it, he pointedly gives us something different. It works. In addition, Stew weaves his tale with wit and withering self-examination. He reminds us that many adults live on the dreams of our 17-year old selves. It's a scary thought - and an uncomfortably true one
The direction by Dorsen, with "movement coordination" by the great modern dance choreographer Karole Armitage, is fluid and physical -- turning what might have easily become a static piece of work into something richly dynamic. She is helped immeasurably by a gifted cast of seven, which also features Rebecca Naomi Jones, Chad Goodridge, and Coleman Domingo. The set design by David Korins, a wall of multi-colored lights that changes its hues like a mood ring, is brilliant.
Passing Strange is not going to change the face of musical theater, but it's surely a reflection of the form's suddenly more rapidly evolving nature.