Wednesday, August 19, 2009

When Broadway Got Real: Passing Strange (The Movie)

It seemed like there was a revolutionary spirit afoot on Broadway in early 2008, when two new musicals brought the theater world an infusion of energy and hipness. While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Latin-hip hop flavored In the Heights is still up-and-running, Stew’s hard-rocking Passing Strange closed far too soon, despite garnering excellent reviews and a Tony Award for best book. Yet it was too good to go undocumented, so Spike Lee brought his cameras into the Belasco Theatre to record Stew’s show in the live performance documentary, Passing Strange (trailer here), which starts a limited engagement in New York this Friday.

Passing is the semi-autobiographical creation of the uni-named Stew (at one time known as Mark Stewart), the show’s narrator, guitarist, bandleader, book and lyric writer, and co-composer/co-orchestrator with bassist Heidi Rodewald. Although Stew had an understudy listed in programs, it is difficult to imagine the show without him driving the band and offering witty musical commentary on the dramatic proceedings.

In a variation on the on-the-road story, 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 Amsterdam’s bohemian hash bars and the hipster pretensions of Berlin. His expatriate voyage unfolds on an austere stage right in the midst of Stew’s band, with only a few plain chairs for a set.

At times the book is quite clever, savagely satirizing the self-important leftist performance art of the Berliners. Featuring sharply incisive dialogue, Passing challenges the audience’s expectations in shrewd ways, frankly addressing issues of personal identity and authenticity in race, sex, and art. When the Youth adopts a militant Black Power persona to impress the Berlin artist 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.”

Daniel Breaker is quite convincing as the somewhat immature Youth, perhaps benefiting the most from Lee’s cinematic close-ups. Likewise, the power of Eisa Davis’s performance as his mother remains undiminished by the show’s transition to the big screen. However, Stew dominates the show with his music and presence. 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 any previous so-called “rock musical.”

Indeed, the music of Passing is quite catchy and it legitimately rocks, but the program is a bit unbalanced, with most of the absolute killer showstoppers, like “Arlington Hill,” “Amsterdam,” and “Keys” front-loaded in the first act. Yet throughout the show, Stew’s effective recurring riffs like, “just when it was starting to feel real,” tie the music and drama together quite powerfully.

Employing multiple cameras over three nights of shooting, Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique capture the sweaty vitality of the show’s essence. However, it seems like they were a tad stingy with Rodewald’s screen time, which is a shame considering her contributions as Stew’s musical collaborator and her own talent as a musician.

Lee might have directed the film, but Passing is still undeniably Stew’s show. It was as real as it gets on Broadway. When the musicians and actors take their final bows on stage, cinema audiences will probably find themselves up on their feet, applauding along with the Belasco patrons. It is a fine send-off for one of the best musicals of the last decade.

It opens on the 21st at the IFC Film Center, with Stew and Rodewald attending the 6:15 & 9:20 screenings on Friday and Saturday, as well as the 3:30 screening on Sunday.