Review: Artist searches for his muse

February 29, 2008 5:26:32 AM PST
Not another show about an artist in search of himself, you say. But hold the skepticism. Stew has the stuff to make "Passing Strange" work. An ingratiating, single-name performer, Stew (real monicker: Mark Stewart) anchors this enjoyable little rites-of-passage musical that's been decked out as if it were a rock concert.

As both author and star, he lifts "Passing Strange" beyond self-absorption, spicing up a mock bohemian story with knowing, sharply observant humor and a buoyant, hard-driving score that he wrote with Heidi Rodewald. She, by the way, is on stage, too, playing bass as a member of the band.

The production, on view at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, works on several levels. It taps into the energy of rock, linking its high-voltage enthusiasm to a parade of entertaining, if sometimes overlong situations and characters that are eminently theatrical.

Stew makes an unlikely leading man. Bald, full-figured and wearing weird black-rimmed specs, the man looks more like a bouncer at a less-than-respectable downtown club. He serves as the show's lead singer and narrator, an unofficial master of ceremonies for this tale of a young black adventurer, referred to only as "Youth" and played with a sweet-tempered exuberance by Daniel Breaker.

Youth is sort of a modern-day Candide. "My dream is to live as an artist," he burbles. So his journey to self-awareness has him traveling from what he perceives as a sterile, middle-class existence in Los Angeles to the sinful, yet intellectually and musically stimulating flesh pots and anarchist enclaves of Amsterdam and Berlin.

His comfortable California home life is not exactly a palm-tree ghetto. It serves as a backdrop for much of Act 1 where Youth fights with his frazzled mother (the delightful Eisa Davis) about going to church - until he learns they play music there. He finds kindred spirits in the choir, particularly the pastor's son (and the church's choir director), played by the linguistically extravagant and athletically limber Colman Domingo.

It's only a short jump from singing in church to forming a band and then deciding music is his life. That decision brings him to Europe, first Amsterdam and then, in Act 2, Berlin.

"Passing Strange" could use a bit of trimming as Youth's descent into sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll becomes repetitious, particularly in the Berlin interludes after intermission. Yet even these scenes move swiftly, thanks to Annie Dorsen's kinetic direction, Karole Armitage's smoothly incorporated choreography and some striking supporting performers who morph easily from role to role to role.

Besides Domingo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, de'Adre Aziza and Chad Goodridge portray the people in Youth's life: LA choir members, Amsterdam avant-garde artists and their more political Berlin counterparts, folks who seem to be forever on the barricades - until they decide to go home to their families at Christmas.

"Passing Strange" isn't saying anything revolutionary, and, in the end, our hero realizes there is more to life than art. But the way he learns his lessons could not have been told in a more entertaining manner.

The show itself has been on its own journey, too - from the Sundance Institute and Berkeley Repertory Theatre to the off-Broadway's Public Theater last season. Broadway is a surprisingly comfortable fit for "Passing Strange," a testament to the universality of its appeal and the genial personality of its rockin' ringmaster.