BWW Review: PASSING STRANGE at Theatre Three
The hip score might be funky, fresh and new, but the themes of PASSING STRANGE sure feel familiar: an aspiring artist strays from his home in search of his creative niche in the world, sacrificing his values and forgetting his roots along the way. But when success finds him, has he lost what's really important in life?
The show is infused with a variety of musical styles (jazz, blues and pop, for starters), telling the story through a combination of short scenes, as well as candid commentary shared directly with the audience. Stew, the narrator and main character of the story, is based on the show's creator, who forged the role from its experimental birth in 2004 up through its Broadway engagement in 2008 (which was filmed by Spike Lee for a 2009 showing). At Theatre Three, the role is brought to life by Calvin Scott Roberts, watching over his younger self (Darren McElroy), as he struggles through the trials and tribulations of his youth: girls, faith, family, fitting in, and the challenges presented by creating art. Eventually, he settles on a life in Amsterdam, where sex, drugs and a rock-and-roll lifestyle are just part of daily existence.
With such fast-paced, lyric-driven storytelling, the muffled Theatre Three sound system hindered the performance at times. Microphones intended to enhance the listening experience, in this instance, seemed to distance the connection between the actors and audience. But this doesn't stop the passionate cast (including Quintin Jones, Cam Kirkpatrick, Nikka Morton, Cherish Robinson, and the scene-stealing Ayanna Edwards) from telling their diverse characters' stories with a fierce tenacity. A special shout-out is owed to musical director and pianist Pam Holcomb-McLain, who augments several scenes with her raw, yet haunting vocals. She is joined by Lincoln Apeland (keyboard 2/guitar), Randy Lindberg (drums), Brian Coleman (guitar) and Peggy Honea (bass), who not only contribute their musical skills, but become part of the action throughout the evening as well.
Director Vickie Washington and choreographer Jamie Thompson have uniquely staged the performance on a series of multi-level platforms (designed by David Walsh) that surround the band in the center of T3's intimate theater-in-the-square space. Aaron Johansen's animated lighting provides some focus among the more abstract theatrical elements. The environment appropriately sets the tone of the show as more performance art than musical theatre, which aids in some of the shows structural flaws: mainly, the lack of melody, and the length of the show (which might be more captivating if it were cut down into a one-act).
Despite any minor setbacks, the talented cast of PASSING STRANGE is intensely engaged and fully connected to their performance. This show might not be the light, upbeat musical for patrons of all ages, but that clearly was never its intent. PASSING STRANGE's tale is intended to inspire, educate and challenge its audience, and if the response of the opening night crowd is any indication, this regional premier is easily meeting its mark.