BWW Reviews: Get 'Real' with Short North Stage's PASSING STRANGE
Short North Stage opened the regional premiere of the Tony-Award winning 'Passing Strange" last night in the gorgeous Garden Theater. Directed by Mark Clayton Suthers, "Passing Strange", with book and lyrics by Stew, tells the story of a young black musician on his artistic journey of self-discovery from his start in middle-class, South-Central Los Angeles in the late 70's, to the hash bars of Amsterdam, and the post-punk scene of Berlin, where he finds a temporary family in a group of German radicals, and struggles desperately to find his own "artistic soul". The simple, but versatile set design by Robert Kuhn, allows for each location to be played out in such a generalized form that the main character's journey becomes that of virtually every teen- how to find your own voice while maintaining your roots.
The Narrator, played by Ron Jenkins, tells this tale of his younger self (a character called simply, Youth, played by Taylor Moss) in all of its self-obsessed, and often regret-filled glory. Jenkins is wonderfully engaging, and works the audience like he was sitting at an intimate dining table, rather than the vast Garden Theater. Jenkins has a gorgeously rich voice that, when clear, on songs like "Love Like That", is soulful perfection, but either due to being a little more tentative at the opening, or poor mic quality, was sadly difficult to understand for the first several numbers. Happily, as the show progressed, regardless of the origin of the problem, Jenkins became much more easily understood, and his true talent more able to be appreciated.
The Narrator's younger, rebellious self was played with superb energy by Taylor Moss. Moss was a solid dancer ("The Black One" is particularly fun), and eye candy enough to make the younger girls seated behind me cat call at the removal of his shirt, but his vocal skills never quite hit the electric level I was hoping for. Obviously talented in higher register on songs such as, "Come Down Now/Youth's Unfinished Song", his performance artist scene in "Identity", though entertaining, sounded as if it may be causing some vocal fry of his lower register quality.
Michelle Golden, as the Youth's Mother, has many witty lines, often amplified by usage of a well-played switch-up between a traditional black Southern dialect, and her middle-class proper guilt-trip intonations, neither of which, unfortunately, cause her son to learn the, "difference between the sacred and the profane", much to her dismay.
Moss does have nice chemistry with Zoe Lathan, who plays his on-stage love Desi, and she is perhaps one of the most understated talents of the cast. There were a few times in the show where Lathan got a chance to really sing- "Damage" and "Come Down Now"- for a few bars before fading back into the ensemble, and I was left wishing she had more feature time. Additionally, she artfully managed a variety of accents well throughout the show.
Mia Angelique Fowler, who plays Edwina/Marianna/Sudabey was entertaining as well, though her characters, with the exception of perhaps Sudabey, lack clearer definition. Her youthful energy is appreciated best in several of the dance numbers, especially in "Stoned", and her vocals shine most on the lovely "Keys", one of the most beautiful pieces in the show.
David Glover, as marijuana smoking, choir director Mr. Franklin, sends the angsty Youth on the beginning of his international journey of discovery by introducing him to guitars, drugs, and the concept of European autonomy in his VW bug. Glover is almost tender as the pastor's son who lives a life full of compromises, but shines most as the avant-garde Berlin performance artist, Mr. Venus. His "Surface" is frighteningly authentic and well-executed.
Rico Parker, as Hugo/Christopher/Terry, brings additional comedic value to the show, as each of his characters is unique, well-developed, and entertaining, without being overbearing. He skillfully utilizes his commanding stage presence without stealing the spotlight from the main characters, and consequently, plays very well in each of his supporting roles.
Musical Direction by P. Tim Valentine is carried out by musicians Joey Skoch (conductor and keyboard), Britta DeVore (keyboard), Derrick Walter (Drums), Larry Marotta (Bass), and Rita Bole (Guitar) from an open band pit area in the mid-front of the stage that allows the actors to interact amusingly with the band throughout the performance- including everything from assisting with quick costume changes, to bantering with the characters on-stage, without literally, missing a beat.
Overall, the production was fun and throughly entertaining, though a little rough-around-the-edges on Opening Night. However, subscribing to a colleague's theory that the best performance of a show's run should always be its last, it will be exciting to see how the show continues to evolve as it goes, as there is tremendous potential clearly brewing just under its surface. "Passing Strange" is full of heart, oft disguised in tart, satirical lyrics and rock beats, but depicts the highly identifiable struggle of listening to who you are, while seeking desperately to be heard. And for those that believe that, "the "real" can only be found in art, not life", a perhaps lofty, but highly worthwhile endeavor.
"Passing Strange" can be seen at the Short North Stage's Garden Theater , located at 1187 North High Street, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm, April 19th- May 5th. Visit : http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/44 for additional ticket information.
PHOTO CREDIT: Short North Stage