Friday, February 29, 2008

Stew’s Rock Musical: Passing Strange

The image of a journeyman musician carrying a guitar down that lonesome road still has resonance in our collective unconscious. That archetype is part of what is at work in Passing Strange, a new rock ‘n’ roll musical (no joke), which opened at the Belasco tonight, after a successful Off-Broadway run at the Public last year.

Strange is the semi-autobiographical creation of the single-named Stew (at one time Mark Stewart), the show’s narrator, guitarist, bandleader, book and lyric writer, and co-composer/co-orchestrator with bassist Heidi Rodewald. Although Stew has an understudy listed in the program, it is difficult to imagine the show without him driving the band, and that band is truly front-and-center in Strange. There is something aesthetically pleasing about seeing the instruments prominently up on stage when you enter the theater. (Although Stew has not had much to say about other musicals in interviews, appropriately he did tell the NY Times Magazine he “loved Chicago,” another show with the band up out of the pit and visible on the stage.)

The story is basically a variation on the on-the-road tale. The simply named Youth, feeling constricted by his lower middle class Los Angeles upbringing, sets out on a journey to find “the real.” Yet it is not clear whether the aspiring songwriter really wants to find it, preferring the excesses of a bohemian lifestyle in Amsterdam and the hipster pretensions of Berlin. His expatriate voyage unfolds on an austere stage amid Stew’s band and a few plain chairs, augmented by the flash of a light wall designed by Kevin Adams and David Korins, which definitely heightens the rock ‘n’ roll ambiance.

It might be a simple story, but Stew has penned some sharp, incisive lines. At times the book is quite clever, as when the Youth has an epiphany regarding the connection between the African-American Church and rock music (both come from a blues source, feature call-and-response and so forth.). It also savagely satirizes the self-important leftist performance art of the Berliners. However, there was about one too many of those performance art numbers, as the Berlin interlude drags a little.

Stew’s book challenges the audience’s expectations in shrewd ways, frankly addressing issues of personal identity, and authenticity in race, sex, and art (hence the confusing title). When the Youth adopts a militant Black Power persona to impress the Berlin artists’ collective, his role-playing is undercut by Stew’s narration: “Nobody in this play knows what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central.” Ultimately, it casts a critical eye on the Youth’s expatriate wanderings, perhaps suggesting he may have missed “the real” he had been looking for all along by turning his back on his home and mother.

Daniel Breaker is convincing enough as the somewhat immature Youth, and Eisa Davis gives a powerful performance as his mother, but it is really Stew’s show. Together with Rodewald, Christian Gibbs on drums, and Jon Spurney and Christian Cassan both doubling on guitar and keyboards, they rock the house, far more than previous so-called “rock musicals.” Their performances definitely sound in-the-moment, with even some improvisation reflecting the evening’s vibe. Over all, it is a strong score featuring two standout showstoppers in “Amsterdam” and “Keys” as well as effective recurring riffs like, “just when it was starting to feel real,” which tie the music and drama together nicely.

It is great to see and hear something legitimately new on Broadway. While the second act does not quite have the zip of the first, it does deliver some unexpected honesty, which is always worth seeing on stage. Passing Strange might not exactly be a Disney show—remember a good part of the first act takes place in the Amsterdam where the expats hang—but it has real energy. The music of Stew and Rodewald could actually produce Broadway’s first legitimate breakout chart hit in years. It is a brisk change of pace from the old warhorses anchored in many Broadway theaters that deserves a strong run.