Setting the Scene
As Youth, the protagonist of Passing Strange, embarks on a journey to Europe, each city establishes a different point in his life and education. He adapts to his new surroundings, from sunny Los Angeles to artsy Amsterdam to radical Berlin, each time transforming into a new persona.
To distinguish these three major cities, set designer Giorgos Tsappas has created one basic set that transforms into three distinctive sets, each presenting a different city--Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Berlin--as a concept through a “passage of panels”. This basic set consists of a series of movable panels of steel and “Polygal” [a popular manufacturer of plastic sheets] hanging on the upstage wall, each then altered to create a distinct city setting and mood.
For Los Angeles, Tsappas uses “dimensional Polygal panels” so that “everything is linear and flat.” His design makes the church an aggravator but also a stimulant for Youth, who “yearns to escape, and discover Europe.” The flat set reinforces Youth’s unhappiness with his dull existence and sets up the urge to go somewhere completely different. At the end of the play, he returns to his dull life for his mother’s funeral, but with more maturity and optimism for the future. Four vertical florescent lights are incorporated into the design to set up the funeral scene.
To create Amsterdam, Tsappas uses “an exposed window, colorful chairs and flashing colors.” This is Youth’s first experience of “a European city away from the flat surfaces of L.A.” As Youth goes on to discover the art scene in Amsterdam, Tsappas’s design conveys the vivacity of a musician’s life in an explosive, vibrant and dynamic Europe; a sharp contrast to boring and monotonous L.A.
Next, Youth’s trip to Berlin continues his journey to discovering “the Real.” In stark contrast to Amsterdam, Tsappas’s “tilted panels and exposed raw metal” make the set “all about hard angles and shadows.” Instead of vibrant colors, “the pallet is monochromatic” with “black/white and silver” to challenge Youth. Although different from L.A. and Amsterdam, Berlin poses its own “set” of obstacles in Youth’s quest to find “the Real.” Reinforcing the message that the new city --and to a greater extend, the journey of life—is not safe and agreeable.
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The Washington Post
'Passing Strange' at Studio 2ndStage:
A tasty musical treat, even without Stew
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
In the recipe for a melodically charged serving of "Passing Strange," you can, it seems, leave out the Stew.
The rocking songwriter known professionally by that single moniker was the chief ingredient in the strong critical response to this autobiographical musical, which had a modest 165-performance run on Broadway in 2008. As the show's star, lyricist, author of its Tony-winning book and co-composer of the music with Heidi Rodewald, Stew seemed a veritable one-man band, even though he was surrounded by a cadre of other musicians and actors.
Now, Studio Theatre's 2ndStage has taken Stew's voluble personality out of the mix, handing over the duties of the evening's touchstone narrator to Jahi A. Kearse. If anything, the casting change affirms that "Passing Strange" can stand without the shimmer of Stew's aura. What appeared to have been a piece tailored to a singular talent proves with this rousing production to be a broader musical statement, about the tension between an artist's egocentric mission and a man's duty to the people he loves.
Stylistically, "Passing Strange" tries to push the boundaries of musical theater -- it's as much a concert as a play -- but the story itself is surprisingly conventional: a portrait of an artist attempting to break free of his roots, only to discover he can't move on without a reconciliation with his past. This struggle is a bit cliched as a musical subject; its familiarity diminishes the show's adventurous luster. Yet there is a wry crispness to Stew's musings about a young black man finding his voice (and inflating the scope of the challenges of his bourgeois life), and an infectious appeal to the eclectic palette of songs through which the tale vividly speaks.
The musical charts the progress of a character called Youth (Aaron Reeder), from a restless adolescence in south-central Los Angeles to a wing-spreading young adulthood in Europe, among free-love types in Amsterdam and snarling avant-gardists in Berlin. Kearse's omniscient narrator, it turns out, is the older incarnation of this young man, whose unfocused creative energies cry out to be tempered by experience and a more forgiving nature.
It's apparent in director Keith Alan Baker's clarifying production that "Passing Strange" apportions juicy roles to many of the supporting players. Baker has more than doubled the ensemble, to 15 from the original seven. Enhanced by Helanius J. Wilkins's buoyant choreography, songs such as "Welcome to Amsterdam" and "May Day" now unfold like bona fide production numbers. The actors playing a variety of incidental characters make lovely impressions, among them Eric R. Williams as a rhythmically challenged drummer in a garage band; Jessica Frances Dukes, playing a Dutch devotee of sex and drugs; and the divine Deborah Lubega, in a turn as a Berlin revolutionary running a collective of artistic anarchists. Costume designer Kristopher Castle's clever get-ups give the Germans the look of a glam-punk motorcycle gang.
The production satisfies an admirable goal of the 2ndStage program: showcasing emerging performers. In this case, some are so fresh that they've yet to earn their union cards. (Virtually all of the actors are African American, and the ensemble's depth is a reminder that even at this late date, it's a talent pool that remains undertapped in these parts.) Baker has guided them all with the same level of technical command he brought two summers ago to a musical with another set of complex working parts, "Jerry Springer: The Opera."
From that offering, he has gratifyingly moved up the ranks one of the standout ensemble members, Reeder, who here plays to sterling effect the central role. Stew is no rose-petal memoirist; he looks back with a healthy appreciation of hypocrisy. In the scathing second-act number, "The Black One," Reeder expertly details Stew's cynical survey of images of black men in the popular imagination. But Stew comes down hardest on the young man in question, who in pursuing an artistic identity distances himself to a needlessly callous degree from his devoted mother (Deidra LaWan Starnes). As she points out to him in a transatlantic phone call, "Your deep concern for yourself is really moving."
The musical -- staged in Studio's raw upstairs space on Giorgos Tsappas's simple set of a benchlike platform, with Christopher Youstra leading a terrific four-piece band -- feels on some level like an attempt to expose this painful error of youth. A wonderful observation is made late in the evening, about how terrifying it is to consider that the course of one's life is based on the decisions of a teenager.
It's Kearse, as the present-day incarnation of that Youth, who delivers this wisdom, one of many wise moments in a moving, cannily controlled performance. If Stew tended to spin across the evening like a strengthening twister, Kearse offers more measured meteorological force. This alters the atmosphere of "Passing Strange" just enough to let us fully enjoy a wider range of Stew's vivacious landscape.
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Jahi A. Kearse (Narrator)
Aaron Reeder (Youth)
Deidra LaWan Starnes (Mother)
Lulu N. Fall
S. Lewis Feemster
Baye StraightForward Harrell
Sean Maurice Lynch
Juan Carlos Sanchez
Shaunté Corrina Tabb
Eric R. Williams
Director and Designers
Keith Alan Baker (Director)
Victoria Joy Murray (Co-Director)
Christopher Youstra (Music Director)
Helanius Wilkins (Choreographer)
Kim James Bey (Dialects)
Giorgos Tsappas (Setting)
Erik Trester (Projections/Sound)
Justin Thomas (Lighting)
Kristopher Castle (Costumes)
Alvin Ford Jr. (Assistant Director)
The Playwrights: Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Stew, Playwright and Co-Composer
Stew, Playwright and Co-Composer
A four-time Tony nominee, Stew leads, along with his collaborator Heidi Rodewald, two critically acclaimed bands: The Negro Problem, a cheerful pop-rock band from Los Angeles, and Stew. His works include Passing Strange for which he received the 2008 Tony award for 'Best Book of a Musical.' Stew won two Obies for Passing Strange, one for 'Best New Theater Piece' and, as a member of the cast, 'Best Ensemble.' His discography includes Post Minstrel Syndrome (TNP 1997), Joys and Concerns (TNP 1999), Guest Host (2000), The Naked Dutch Painter (2002), Welcome Black (TNP 2002), Something Deeper Than These Changes (2003) and the cast album of Passing Strange (2008). Stew was an Artist-in-residence at the California Institute of the Arts in 2004 and 2005. But perhaps what Stew will be remembered for ultimately is having composed "Gary Come Home" for SpongeBob SquarePants.
Heidi Rodewald, Co-Composer
Heidi Rodewald has spent more than a decade as a performer, arranger, producer and composer for both The Negro Problem and the multi-disciplinary ensemble known as Stew. She spent some of the 80's touring the country and enjoying MTV rotation with the band Wednesday Week, writing and singing lead on the songs Why and Missionary. With Stew, she co-wrote the screenplay We Can See Today, which was invited to the 2005 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs. She also recently composed music for downtown legend Karen Kandel’s Portraits: Night and Day.
A young black artist from Los Angeles leaves his church, his friends and his mother behind to take a chance on Europe. In this wild “musical experiment” by rock musician Stew, a sundry bunch of artists, anarchists, holy rollers, tokers, and teens explore culture, race, sexual freedom, family bonds, and the meaning of Art. The cast collides with a live band to create an inimitably strange poetry slam meets rock concert-cum-musical.
Passing Strange by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Passing Strange by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
With band The Negro Problem
Welcome Black (2002)
Joys and Concerns (1999)
Post Minstrel Syndrome (1997)
Albums by Stew
Something Deeper Than These Changes (2003)
The Naked Dutch Painter ...and other songs (2002)
Guest Host (2000)
Soundbites from Stew
The rock musician and creator of Passing Strange on rock music, fame and theatre:
“Rock people hate musicals, traditionally. And rightfully so, for the most part. But we all secretly want a big rock show with some big lights and a big cool light show on that back wall. We do. We want that in real life.”
“You wanna know the most terrifying combination of words in the English language to me? Rock Musical. Because the music featured in such so-called productions is stuff that no self-respecting rock fan would ever be caught dead listening to. Therefore, Passing Strange is the musical you can take your friend to who hates musicals.”
“We have these fans who think it’s wrong that we’re not more famous. But we know that fame just isn’t the judge of quality, except in America. Only in America do they go: ‘You’ve made six records? You’re making a play? But I’ve never heard of you."
“Most plays I see don't tend to speak to the so-called outsider. We did our play assuming that everybody had smoked pot as a teenager, that they knew what Amsterdam was all about, that they'd experienced racial alienation, and assuming they'd been as oppressed by their own community as they had by the outside world. We didn't go in thinking, "Oh my God, we're going to Broadway now—we have to make it understandable for everyone." We assumed that everybody had a little bit of outsider in them.”
“Having never been interested in theater before embarking upon this journey and having only seen a small handful of plays in my 45 years, I happened upon some stuff about the old Greek play competitions. I also read a little bit about the vibe at Shakespeare's Old Globe and — though I'm well out of my league here in commenting — it seems like those worlds were far more rock-and-roll than the stuffed-shirt vibe that scares most people away from theater. Think about it: people standing around consuming alcohol, watching (and sometimes yelling at) men onstage dressed up as women. And the joint was in a sketchy neighborhood? Wait a minute, I recognize that dive! I've been playing there my entire life!”
An Interview with Jahi A. Kearse
Jahi Kearse, who plays both Narrator and lead guitarist, talks about his character and working on Passing Strange. Studio Theatre audiences will recognize Kearse from his memorable roles in In the Red and Brown Water (2010), Topdog/Underdog (2003), Slam! (1999) and The Studio 2nd Stage’s Fucking A (2009).
The first time you listened to Passing Strange’s musical score, what were your reactions?
Jahi Kearse: Wow!! It's LOUD and ALIVE!! ;) I like It!
What is your process for developing a character?
JK: Acting is Doing. Doing is Being. Being is Believing. I guess I work to let go of disbelief, in a similar way that children imagine and create, worlds to play inside of.
What has been the most challenging aspect of playing Narrator?
JK: From the second the show starts, it moves with such energy and passion, I've had to make sure that I don't get lost in watching, listening and enjoying the spectacle as an audience member myself. Funny thing is: In a way that's a part of what my character in this journey is created to do. A challenging fine line to walk. Very Kool though.
Because the show is semi-autobiographical and Stew originated the character of Narrator, how have you made the Narrator your own? What have you brought to the character?
JK: I can only bring to it what I understand of it. There are many similarities in my life to some of the moments relived in this piece. I'm giving my experiences to his truths. I hope to ask Stew what he thinks of my efforts. I hope to honor his work. I'm a fan of it.
Has being a member of the band changed how you develop your character? And if so, how?
JK: Music is the key in the piece. Being able to ride along with the rhythms of the Band becomes involuntary. The colors of the story are laid down and the details are left to be determined by the night that we all come together in that room to rock.
Passing Strange has been a huge success with both teens and adults. What do you think makes the show so appealing to such a diverse fan base?
JK: In my mind...It's a story about youth searching for a true freedom. It’s a story about youth bumbling around learning to love. It’s a story about becoming lost, growing, then being found. It’s a story about having grown through life enough to see how youth looks now through adult eyes. It’s a road we all take, in one way or another. And if nothing else. It's sex, drugs and Rock n Roll!