THEATER REVIEW: “Passing Strange” @ Karamu by Roy Berko

Through Sun 6/3

Mark Stewart, better known as “Stew,” is noted for being a member of the band the Negro Problem. He is also the author of the book and lyrics for Passing Strange, a semi-autobiographical musical, co-written with Heidi Rodewald in collaboration with Annie Dorsen. The script is presently rocking Karamu.

Passing Strange opened on Broadway to positive reviews and was a serious contender for the 2008 Tony Award. (It lost to Lynn Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights.) Unfortunately, it never caught on with Broadway audiences and ran a disappointing 165 performances. Maybe it was “too loud,” or not about a subject identifiable with the white and older Broadway audience, or was ahead of its time, or is a small show that needed to be in an intimate theatre. Whatever, it just didn’t get the traction it needed to have a long run.

Passing Strange is primarily based on Stew’s experiences as a young musician traveling through Europe in the 1980s. When the show opened on Broadway, Stew played the Narrator, an older version of himself, reflecting on his youthful angst, family rebellion, drug use, sexual exploration and spiritual awakening.

Classified as a comedy/dark rock musical, it examines a young African American’s journey of self-discovery both in the U.S. and Europe. It is filled with self-reflection, probing to find out why he exists, child-mother angst and an examination of the black community’s attitude about members of their community who are not “black enough.”

Stew summarized the story and the music when he wrote, “It’s … about the costs of being a young artist. It’s a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you’re making that decision to really be an artist … We knew we were going to invent something ’cause we kind of knew this hadn’t been done before, the goal being to bring the actual music that one hears in a club to the stage — not through some kind of theatrical musical-theater filter.”

This was Stew’s first foray in playwriting, and it shows. The story is not totally developed and the writing, especially the dialogue, is not always well-conceived. It has a disconcerting looseness which envelops a number of memorable songs.

Karamu is a perfect venue for the show. The audience is mainly African American. Since the story is about a black youth who isn’t “black enough,” there is more of a chance the ticket buyers will identify with him than was the case on Broadway. Karamu’s Arena stage, a small theater with no seat more than 15 feet from the action, is a perfect size and configuration for Passing Strange.

The Karamu production, with adept directing by Nathan A. Lilly, is excellent. The music includes such well-conceived songs as “Sole Brother,” “Amsterdam,” “Keys,” “We Just Had Sex,” “Identity,” “The Black One,” “Come Down Now” and “Love Like That” rocks. The lyric interpretations are generally meaningful.

The cast is universally strong. Darius J. Stubbs nicely takes us on the journey as the Narrator. He has a fine singing voice and good acting chops. Justin C. Woody wraps himself into Youth. He professes to have a skill in painting. If his art work parallels his singing, acting and dancing, he immediately deserves a public display.

Treva Ofutt is totally believable as Youth’s mother. Carlos Antonio Cruz is strong in multiple roles as are Joshua McElroy and Mary-Francis R. Miller. CorLesia Smith provides strong vocal backup and solos.

Ed Ridley Jr.’s band (Elijah Gilmore, Kevin Byous, Bradford L. McGhee and Chantrell Lewis) not only effectively backs up the singers, but does justice to some complicated arrangements which include gospel, punk, blues, jazz, as well as rock. Kenya R. Woods’s creative choreography molds the production together.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: After an overly long first act, the show shifts into high gear and wraps up with a strong final act. The Karamu cast is excellent.

Passing Strange continues through Sun 6/3.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

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