‘Passing Strange’ even stronger rearranged
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org April 26, 2011 6:34PM
◆ Through May 29
◆ Bailiwick Chicago at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green
◆ Tickets, $25-$35
◆ (312) 733-6000;
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Bailiwick Chicago’s Midwest premiere of “Passing Strange,” the Stew and Heidi Rodewald musical created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, is staggeringly good. And anyone in need of a reminder of how Chicago theater continues to reinvent itself is advised to head directly to the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts to catch it.
Not only is the show — a classic coming-of-age story with a notable twist — in many ways far sharper and more intimate here than it was in the 2008 Broadway edition that starred Stew himself. But thanks to a cast of brilliant young singer-actors led by the bravura Jayson “JC” Brooks as “Narrator,” as well as the razor-edged onstage band led by James Morehead, and the spare, clever, bristlingly insightful direction of Lili-Anne Brown, it takes on an immediacy the original lacked.
No longer does this feel like a nostalgic piece, even though it is still set in the Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Berlin of the 1980s, and a great deal has changed since then. It now pulses with the energy of this moment. Plus, the fact that its central character is a middle-class black kid from Los Angeles — in search of songwriter dreams, a sense of identity and distance from his loving single mother (LaNisa Renee Frederick) — also brings to mind a certain man now in the White House who very likely was doing similar “self-searching” at the same time as Stew. So the show’s meaning has only deepened.
The show’s score and book (the latter won Stew a 2008 Tony Award)unspool with a seductive seamlessness that beautifully and often hilariously interweaves American and European history and attitudes, suggesting the changes in pop music styles and, most crucially, the alterations in one young man’s inner landscape.
The “Youth” (Stephen Perkins, who memorably pulls out the stops in “Identity,” a performance-art-style work in which he taps his fake roots) is something of a classic teenage nerd with a rebellious streak, though he is far from ghetto-bred. He first “catches the spirit” at the local Baptist church, thanks to the decidedly unorthodox ideas of the reverend’s gay son Mr. Franklin (Osiris Khepera is priceless), whose dreams of bohemian Europe become realities for the Youth.
Leaving his mother behind, the Youth heads to Amsterdam, where sex, drugs and acceptance are easy and natural. Then it is on to an anarchic commune in Berlin before the fall of the Wall, where he gets a political walloping, briefly plays on his “blackness” and, in the most life-changing event of all, learns of the death of his mother, whom he has selfishly ignored. The Youth has a habit of fleeing, particularly when romantic relationships get too close. He discovers the hard way that while “art” may be a great balm, it cannot replace the real ties of the heart.
In this show full of “adult adventures,” the marvelously luminous and talented Sharriese Hamilton and Whitney White play all the females muses, with Aaron Holland easily morphing from garage band pal to transvestite.
As for Brooks (outstanding as Coalhouse Walker in Porchlight Theatre’s “Ragtime” revival), he is a wonder — a superb singer, stylist and actor with easy elegance, grace, emotional intensity and heart. And he and the others are splendidly backed by Morehead’s band featuring Billy Bungeroth, Kevin Marks, Ben Taylor and David Keller.