Passing Strange at Mixed Blood Theatre

Brittany Bradfprd, Anthony Manough, Meghan Kreidler and Nathan Barlow in Passing Strange.  Photo by Rich Ryan.

Brittany Bradford, Anthony Manough, Meghan Kreidler and Nathan Barlow in Passing Strange. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Passing Strange (at Mixed Blood Theatre, through May 11) is an example of that ancient, hoary, and utterly old-fashioned theatrical entity: the rock musical. Everyone is in the band. The cast plays various instruments – not brilliantly, but you can’t have everything.  After all, where would you put it?  Or they simply function as backup singers.  The music, loud, lusty and riveting, rarely stops (kudos to Montana Johnson‘s sound design; everyone is perfectly audible). Director Thomas W. Jones II stages the play with blow-back-your-hair energy. If you see Passing Strange (and you should), be sure to wear toe-tappers. You’ll need them.

The story concerns a young – a mere 22 – black man’s search for “the real.” The Youth (the play provides no other name) starts in L.A., singing in a church choir (where he smokes marijuana with the preacher’s son). He breaks away from his loving but controlling mother and plays in a punk rock band (and knows, as far as I could tell, no guitar chords). His journey then takes him to Amsterdam, where he takes up with an accepting Dutch woman (as portrayed by sexy Meghan Kreidler in the wonderful “Keys” and “We Just Had Sex”).  Next stop: Berlin, where everyone is breath-takingly intense. They call themselves artists.  They substitute, Germanically, an obsession with categories for human passion. Faced with this, our intrepid Youth pretends to be…

I won’t reveal any more of Passing Strange‘s plot. Know that the show’s creators – book and lyrics is by Stew (no last name given) with music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald – develop the Youth’s journey with thrilling passion. The Youth’s fixation with “the real” (with family, with artistic honesty, with truth) is more than an excuse to play some tasty music (though this certainly happens). The twists and turns of the Youth’s journey turns the play into “real” art. “If I were any more real, I’d be fictional.”  “Life is a mistake that only Art can correct.” Lovely stuff.

The play does suffer from a problem common to musicals: the static music prevents really satisfying character development. The songs, lovely though they are, don’t really move the characters forward. As a result, emotional payoffs (e.g., Youth’s rejection of Mother) don’t work as they would in a straight play (a truly horrible expression, this). Shrek, The Musical, currently playing at CTC, suffers from this problem much more extensively than Passing Strange. This is a minor complaint. Passing Strange is quite effective.

The first thing to be said about the acting is that Brittany Bradford is in the play. This actor is subtle, larger than life, emotionally intense, utterly watchable. She plays the Youth’s German girlfriend and really makes the scene fly (“How can I love someone I don’t believe in?”). As always, I left Mixed Blood thinking almost exclusively about her. She’s wonderful.

Passing Strange features a narrator, Stew (gee, I wonder if this role was originally played by the show-creator). Anthony Manough plays the role now and he’s excellent, a great singer and a grab-you-by-the-throat narrator. However, I often felt that he was taking material I would have preferred to see performed by the Youth (Nathan Barlow). Barlow is outstanding, but he and Stew/Narrator sometimes seemed at odds, wrestling for control of the play with Barlow diminished as a result. Another minor complaint; Barlow thrills. As Mother, in the last scene, Jamecia Bennett is breath-takingly, and heart-rendingly, beautiful. Nice work is done by Lipica Shah, by Kreidler and (especially) by Leroi James.

For more info about John Olive please visit his website.

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