Rarely revived, Theatre 3’s ‘Passing Strange’ tracks the journey of an artist
You never know when the Holy Spirit will enter you — or, when it does, what shape it will take.
For Stew — the officially-unnamed narrator of the funky-thoughtful musical Passing Strange, making its regional premiere at Theatre 3 — it happened at one church service. Only it didn’t take the form of the Father or the Son, but of Music. Rock-n-roll. His salvation came in chord progressions and backbeats. Stew — referred to simply as Youth (Darren McElroy), as well as the adult Narrator (Calvin Scott Roberts) — followed a bohemian path of sex, drugs and a surprisingly radio-friendly pop sound. Although African-American, Youth was as hopelessly middle-class as his paler compatriots. It wasn’t until he made it to Europe — first Amsterdam, then Berlin — that he was seen as edgy and “urban.” He could fool the hipsters of the early 1980s with his (fake) tales of civil rights activism … at least for a while. But the façade made him callow and cruel. He wallowed in a false persona, trying to impress people who didn’t matter in his life while ignoring those he did.
This is autobiographical stuff, told with a poetic sensibility in a free-verse narration that unblinkingly tells us that Youth was a pretty terrible guy, but that being terrible may have been the only way to reach his end. A reverie on race that isn’t about the Jazz Age or told through the prism of Jim Crow. It’s a pilgrim’s progress, told through a funky downtown soundtrack.
Stew’s music (co-composed with Heidi Rodewald) defines pigeonholing, but without being “gospel,” it conjures the hypnotic repetition of a chanted church refrain with catchy, short musical phrases that augment the evocative language (Stew describes Berlin “as a forest of sharp corners”).
Passing Strange was “the other” big musical of 2007–08, all but blanked at that year’s Tony Awards by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton hit In the Heights (it did win the Tony for best book of a musical). I saw that production, in which Stew starred as himself, so I was curious whether it could translate with another actor; the answer to that is an unqualified “yes.” Roberts may not be actually playing his own guitar, but he is inhabiting a character whose defining feature is that he never interacts with any of the other actors onstage: He hovers omnisciently, filling in the blanks as his recollections are acting out before us in their iconoclastic glory. But Roberts’ searing emotionalism is sometimes enough to bring you to tears. Just as good is Cam Kirkpatrick as a queer youth minister and a kinky boot-scootin’ German performance artist, and Nikka Morton, a powerhouse as the Youth’s doting mother.
The one obvious weakness at the final preview performance reviewed is in the sound. The lyrics and dialogue are pregnant with internal rhymes and double meaning, which are sometimes drowned out by the band. At the same time, the music — while capably played under Pam Holcomb-McLain’s music direction — doesn’t really “rock out” enough. The plotting doesn’t allow for easy last-chord applause breaks, but there should be more opportunity for the audience to interrupt with a round of clapping. Maybe that was my diffident audience; this is a show that benefits from an engaged, rowdy atmosphere.
Even without the mosh-pit vibe, Passing Strange is an exceptional musical of unusual songs and quirky storytelling. This is the first full-scale musical produced from new T3 artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt, and while he didn’t direct it — that fell to the very capable Vickie Washington — the energy it exudes recalls Schmidt’s own hand with the amazing hit from several seasons past, On the Eve. It signals a new regime at T3 in style and substance, so you should definitely take the opportunity to see this outstanding production.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition MARCH 10, 2017.