BWW Reviews: PASSING STRANGE from Sidecountry Delivers the Poetic Beauty of a Rock and Roll Life
How do you put on an autobiographical show, known to be performed by its author, without that author? It's like "700 Sundays" without Billy Crystal or "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" without Elaine Stritch. Well, fledgling theater company Sidecountry Theatre has done just that with their production of "Passing Strange" by Stew and Heidi Rodewald without Stew narrating his own story. And while it's a little odd at first, narrator LeRoy Bell embraces the part and that oddness melts away as his charisma and talent takes center stage.
Part play, part rock concert, but not musical theater (they even mention they don't know how to write that style) the music is clearly Stew's as he takes us on his journey from middle class African American kid in LA into the hash dens of Amsterdam and the performance art scene of Berlin as he searches for "the real". And while Bell narrates us through the journey we meet Stew's younger self referred to only as Youth (Andrew Lee Creech) as he encounters a myriad of eclectic characters all of whom he takes in as his chosen family while attempting to distance himself from his real family and Mother (Marlette Buchanan) back home.
It's a beautiful story filled with richly poetic lyrics and music that matures and changes along with the characters of the piece. Director Tyrone Brown has not only staged the piece brilliantly in the somewhat sightline troubled Bullitt Cabaret space but also captured the flow and heart of Stew's life and words. Music director Jose Gonzales and his kick ass band (Kathy Moore, Matt Jorgensen and Nate Omdal) keep the show rocking without ever overpowering the story. And choreographer Crystal Dawn Munkers has crafted some gorgeously expressive bits that only add to the slightly surreal nature of the show.
But it's the cast that needs to pull this piece off as many of them weave in and out of various characters all the while searching for "the real" and pull it off they do. As I said, Bell manages a presence and strength of a consummate front man. At times some of his timing felt a little off but that could just be opening night settling in, but his obvious respect and love for the piece truly does it honor. Creech manages to truly take on this journey as his arc and growth throughout are quite clear. And with his own likable presence and highly expressive face he's a joy to watch. Buchanan is lovely as a Mother who just wants her son to come home and manages some powerful and heartbreaking moments. And hats off to the ensemble who take on multiple roles and keep the story as rich and colorful as it needs to be and each take their opportunity to shine. Yesenia Iglesias gives us a hilariously superficial Edwina one minute and a deeply felt Marianna the next. J Reese also runs the gamut of emotion as he goes from the tragically closeted Mr. Franklin to the frighteningly uninhibited Mr. Venus. Shontina Vernon's complex portrayal of the revolutionary Desi is riveting. And DeSean Halley takes on all three of his characters and gives them as individual a life as is possible and makes all three hilarious and real.
A remarkable production of a remarkable show that deserves to be seen. It's fun, touching, rocking and moving all at the same time. With my three letter rating system I would have to give this a YAY and I urge you to take the time to catch it. This show IS "the real".
"Passing Strange" from Sidecountry Theatre performs at the Bullitt Cabaret at ACT through June 29th. For tickets or information contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.