Berkeley Rep, Berkeley, California, 10/19-12/3, 2006
Photo by Kevin Berne
A singer/songwriter is always telling his own story, it’s just not often that he gets a theatre and cast of actors to help him tell it. The singer/songwriter named “Stew” (“The Negro Problem”) is the lucky one, in a new musical theatre production called, “Passing Strange”, playing at the Berkeley Rep on its way to the Public Theatre in New York. Or perhaps it’s the audience that’s lucky. This is a genre-bender that works because of a slick, often hilarious production. But mostly, the show is a winner because the man knows how to write songs.
The story itself is not particularly compelling: a suburban black kid decides to diss his family by not going to college—he jumps from the youth choir at his church all the way to Amsterdam, and then Berlin, where he explores ‘la vie boheme’. In spite of this rather limited plot trajectory, the intimate production, on-stage band and cast of a half-dozen actors playing a variety of roles sells the hell out of the piece. And at the heart of the work (as well as standing center stage, with a guitar and a podium) is a man speaking honesly, telling the world why music matters.
“Passing Strange” is not one of those “American” musicals that will ever end-up on Broadway. There is “choreography” by Carole Armitage, a hot-shot modern dance person, but you’d never know it. None of the songs are anthems, no one really ever gets a chance to belt or cry or bring down the house. The beauty of “Passing Strange” is that it is (to use an off-putting term) well-integrated. The songs flow like speeches in a Shakespearian play, the pop-rock music serves the words, and the actors, an excellent bunch (Eisa Davis is touching as the mother, Colman Domingo is a lighting bolt as Franklin and Venus, the other cast women de’Adre Aziza and Rebecca Naomi Jones are funny and remarkably versatile) occasionally throw off a little vocalization that makes you realize they’ve all got it—everyone here is a musician.
Michael Wade Simpson