The story may be cliché, but it is the brainchild the immensely talented front-peoples of pop-rock combo The Negro Problem and is assuredly fresh because of them. The lyrics are rich, the music propelling. Of course, Stew's story can be grueling. He's not sympathetic – restless, angsty, and self-sabotaging as he perpetually chases "The Real." At times the play even seems to poke fun at its own content, making potentially transformative moments absurd. Perhaps this reflects the young Stew's own insecure grasp of the Oz he's fallen into.
In his program notes, director Scott Miller offers that he opted for a technically minimalist production to allow for the "rich, rowdy music and lyrics." Set by Todd Schaefer and costumes by Amy Kelly do their duty to stay out of the way. The little that's present does a lot to gently accentuate the show and its cast – a swirling psychedelic blue brick road underlies the journey, actors clothed in gray basics become colorful characters as they toss around bright accessories.
Most importantly, Miller's minimalism accentuates the talent of his cast. With little to distract in the intimate theatre, the space is quickly filled with the finest wrist flick or arched brow. The actors also have all the room they need to play, and easily fill the stage as they acid trip in LA and riot in Berlin.
This is a deeply personal story for Stew. In his own description of the show, Stew says in response to the naivety of American politicians he decided to start exhibiting his own European exploits. The New York Times described Passing Strange as "a rock concert with a story to tell." As a piece developed from Stew's own wayward performance art, the play begs to defy convention. Sadly, this seems to be where New Line's production has fallen short.
Music led by Justin Smolik is solid, but fails to fill the void in a piece designed for a true rock and roll band. They are sound musically, and perform well on a piece that demands a spectrum of styles: gospel, pop-punk, acid rock, even a number recalling old-time Minstrel shows. But they are restrained, pinned together virtually backstage in a show that often begs for them to be front and center.
While it's understandable that The Negro Problem can't perform here, New Line gets as close to the real Stew as it can, casting local legend Charles Glenn. However, this is clearly not Glenn's own story. He brings the vocals and faithfully describes the voyage, but lacks the commitment to truly embody the role of autobiographer. As the young Stew, Keith Parker is unfortunately consistent with his elder counterpart – great voice, but lacking on the journey.
Luckily, the chorus picks up where the leads fall shy. Miller has found powerhouse vocalists (notably Jeanitta Perkins and Talichia Noah). John Reed II is apt to steal scenes, and Andrea Purnell physicalizes her characters so purely they're almost unrecognizable as the same actor. Cecil E. Washington Jr. shines when he's on, and I'd have liked to have seen and heard more of him. We are easily carried on the journey across countries and ideologies with this ensemble.
With Passing Strange, Stew has successfully radicalized his multidimensional combo. He's used great music and songwriting to successfully marry the rock concert, traditional theatre, and performance art into a delightful concoction of poly-amorous artistic glee. Stew is offering a new level of mainstream theater. It's a shame that this production is stifled under a net of convention. Worth seeing, but it probably won't get any parties started in your mind.