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"Passing" Dream

Date: Jun 30, 2008


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One lesson of the lively, moving, award-winning rock musical Passing Strange is that the people closest to us matter more in the end than any of our achievements, creative or otherwise. But for Tony-nominated actress de'Adre Aziza, who plays a variety of memorable roles in the picaresque narrative, this is already a home truth.

"I've been assured by my inner circle that I won't have to go back to Nobu," says Aziza, referring to her day job as a hostess at the pricey Manhattan eatery, which she gave up after Passing Strange moved to Broadway from the Public Theatre. By "inner circle," one would assume she means her agent, manager and publicist, right?

"No, I mean my mom, my girfriends and my son," says Aziza, who grew up in New Jersey and attended both the Harlem School of the Arts and the Tisch School of the Arts. Indeed, Aziza is so in sync with the story and approach of Passing Strange that she seems almost a step ahead of it.

"I've been aiming for a show like this," says Aziza, as if wry, autobiographical pop/punk musicals like the one co-written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald are being minted daily. "I haven't actually been a fan of musical theatre. Even when I was training at NYU, I just didn't feel that most musicals were relevant to my life and the people I know." She says, in fact, that she's turned down work "that I wasn't passionate about. So this is a dream come true to do a show like this."

In Passing Strange, which follows a young singer/songwriter from a sleepy African-American suburb in L.A. to Amsterdam and Berlin and beyond, Aziza plays a range of characters, including a sassy young girl from South Central L.A., an open-hearted Dutch artist and a severely avant-garde German filmmaker.

"It's always the biggest compliment when Dutch or German people come up to me after the show and say, 'Your accent was really good,' " Aziza says. "People think I've been there." (She hasn't.)

Among the unique pleasures of Passing Strange has been performing the show with the band onstage ("I think of myself more as a musician than as an actor," says Aziza), and working with singer/songwriter/librettist Stew, who narrates and sings from centerstage. This unique arrangement, Aziza notes, has entailed a mutual learning curve among the actors and musicians who share the stage.

"As actors, we know that sometimes when the audience is quiet, that doesn't mean they're not into  it," Aziza says. "But as a rocker, Stew wants more than that; he wants some response. I remember one night at the Public, the audience was really quiet during the acid trip scene, so right after that, Stew started screaming in this high-pitched, incredibly earthy tribal scream, and that woke everyone up."

Not least his fellow performers.

"First of all, we had no idea his voice could go that high. Also, we were thinking, 'What's going on?' We soon realized that depending on how he's feeling, he can do something like that, and he will do that, and that's cool."

Aziza says it's appropriate for audiences to enter the theatre with their defenses, and pretenses, down.

"A lot of times when people go into the theatre, they lose a little bit of themselves and become 'theatregoers,' " Aziza says. "We're saying, don't put that on. Come as you are, and come along for the ride. At one show we had someone shushing the kids, and with this show that's the worst thing you could ever do. This show is about a teenager finding his way to adulthood, so shushing teenagers is the exactly the opposite of the show's point."

Click here for more information about Passing Strange.