Bayside High School, Grade 12
I’m all for the calm and cautious kind of review. But there are times when a review calls for an obsessed-fan-at-an-*NSYNC-concert-like response. Passing Strange deserves such a reaction. From all the quirky little jokes (“Nobody in this play knows what it's like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central”) and brilliant little puns (“I think therefore I Am-sterdam!”), Passing Strange is so incredibly thoughtful, delightful, and, well, strange (in a good way).
The music is so loud that it feels like a rock concert. The set is radiantly placed with a simple lighted background. The four musicians are lowered slightly into the stage, making them more a part of the show than the usual group of unseen musicians in an orchestra pit underneath. At the center of these four musicians is Stew, as the self-proclaimed “biting narrator” of this semi-autobiographical tale about his alter-ego, Youth, played by Daniel Breaker. Passing Strange is the portrait of a young man’s journey to find his own self identity in life. But there’s so much more to this offbeat rock ’n’ roll musical.
It starts off with Youth lying in bed on a Sunday morning in a black middle-class neighborhood in L.A. His mother wants him to go to good ol’ church with her; he doesn’t want to go. He’s found Zen instead. She has her way and forces him to go to church anyway. During the service Youth has a “religious experience”: He catches the eye of a hot choir girl, who persuades him to join the youth choir.
This youth choir is anything but a good Christian choir. The kids wind up just dabbling in drugs and forming a punk rock band together. Then, under the influence of the minister’s son’s words (and the drugs), Youth decides to abandon his “overbearing” mother and head off to Europe. He dreams to live as an artist and discover himself, far away from home. From his comfortable life in L.A., Youth sets out for the hash bars in Amsterdam and then the counterculture bars in Berlin.
All the while, Youth tries continually to find himself through his experiences and his music. But the further he travels, the more he discovers the voyage within is the one that counts. He never seems to grasp that “only love is real,” and that that is just what he has been missing out on. This adds an unexpectedly heartfelt depth to the plot. At a particular climactic point, Stew suddenly breaks the fourth wall and blatantly admits to the audience how strange it seems that the mistakes of a 17-year-old can change the life of an adult.
Passing Strange has many memorable moments as well as characters (the leather-clad Berliner, Mr. Venus, is a particular favorite). It has all the humor and entertainment value needed; it has amazing and catchy rock songs (you’ll be singing them as you leave), and yet it also contains all the serious reality of a young Youth’s life. Overall, the performance is best described as strangely unforgettable.
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