Grabbing a line from “Othello” and fitting it to the title of a Broadway musical has, for “Passing Strange,” achieved an effect that could probably have been foreseen: It sounds profound and potentially enlightening, as if from somewhere within those two words, something will, at any second, reveal itself in blinding, Shakespearean glory. Inspiration will come. You will get going on that English 125 essay and possibly even take out the trash. Two hours later, though, the only blinding is due to the monstrously large wall of neon lights unleashed halfway through the show, and rather than taking out the trash, your foot stomps right into it while trying to navigate the steps leading out of New York’s Belasco Theater.
Not to say that the musical is devoid of any substance. Directed by Annie Dorsen, and practically-everything-elsed by Stew (co-composed by Stew, narrated by Stew, based off a book by Stew, starring Stew and yes, Stew’s last name has somehow dropped off the face of the earth), there is nothing Shakespearean about “Passing Strange.” However, it does manage to take a tired plot line — that of a boy leaving his mom, going out into the world and finding himself — and add enough guitars, drums, bass and keyboards to turn life’s trials into one long, fun rock concert that even gets the cute, pink cashmere-clad old ladies up front to start jamming out. And the more weighty issue of what is expected of an African American — to be “ghetto,” to speak in slang-filled “negro dialect” — are tactfully and humorously addressed without shattering the lighthearted tone, sparing its audience any sermonizing.
The story follows a 19-year-old boy referred to only as “Youth” (played by Daniel Breaker) throughout his globe-hopping journey from south central Los Angeles, to Amsterdam, to Berlin, as he pursues his dreams of a musical career. A slightly befuddling character, Youth begins the musical dealing out fashion criticisms to his mother in the high-pitched voice of a cute, clearly gay boy. By the end of the first act, however, Youth has begun singing a song quaintly entitled “We Just Had Sex,” surrounded by leather-clad, anti-capitalist German girls. Both his voice and demeanor have sunk to that of someone clearly intrigued by girls and their… assets. Maybe this is what “passing strange” was supposed to mean?
Youth’s chameleonic changes in character highlight what appears to be one of the musical’s morals. “We’re all freaks depending on the backdrop,” one character says near the beginning of the show, providing the first of many pearls of wisdom handed out at regular intervals, although some of these intended bits of clarity make the title “Passing Strange” seem positively translucent. Examples: “True love can only exist after the revolution,” one German girl proclaims. “Life is a mistake that only art can correct,” says Stew. And when Youth’s mother dies for absolutely no reason, we ask ourselves, “Am I to call my mom more often lest she abruptly pass away?”
Despite the ambiguity of some characters and moral lessons, however, songs performed throughout the play are a refreshing departure from the traditional Broadway number. A fully-equipped rock band, stationed in below-stage sinking platforms, provides a loud, upbeat accompaniment to the actors’ vocals, and even periodically chime in with the dialogue. Karole Armitage’s choreography is often mesmerizing, with the lights dimmed so that the six main characters become nothing more than silhouettes dancing against the backdrop of an enormous white curtain, changing colors according to the light cast on it.
At the end of the night, it’s hard to tell what you most gained from watching “Passing Strange,” other than the notion that it faithfully lives up to its name — whatever its name is supposed to mean. But floating somewhere within that notion are disconnected conclusions such as: Stew is funny; Baptist churches look like fun; don’t quit so easily on that boy you think is cute, but happens to be gay. But if you insist on a weightier conclusion, there’s always the end of the show profile in the playbill to look to: “With the nature of language — like many things in life — everything old is new again. Passing strange, indeed.”