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BWW Review: PASSING STRANGE at Playhouse On Park

How does one find "the real"? That is the question that "Youth" the protagonist in PASSING STRANGE asks himself as he takes the audience along on his long journey of self-discovery. In this the second production of their seventh season, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford has taken a chance on a lesser known piece - one that, while it did receive critical acclaim in its original New York production, is not necessarily a household name, even among theater aficionados. But sometimes, a lack of previous knowledge or a following can be just the key to creating a new and fresh experience as an audience. And this reviewer certainly experienced something unique and brilliant, and dare I say "real" on the Playhouse stage.

Upon sitting in my seat, I could tell the show was going to be something un ique. The stage was reminiscent of a rock concert stage, slightly hazy with a band prominently featured. This certainly set the tone for what was to come. The first chords by the talented band (under the direction of Michael Morris) of the rock-infused score (by Stew and Heidi Rodewald), began what would be a roller coaster ride of emotion painted beautifully by a script that felt at times more like poetry and which speaks to the core question of human purpose and meaning, something we all seek at some point in our lives.

The Narrator, played with passion and fervor by Darryl Jovan Williams, introduces himself as Stew (the author of the piece) and throughout the evening weaves a tale that is both personal and profound - a tale of his own self-discovery. He introduces the audience to Youth, played by Eric R. Williams, who in the role, showed significant range of emotion from boredom and restlessness to contentment and joy, then confusion and finally sorrow. His interpretation of a young man who yearns for "the real" came across with just the right mix of energy and ennui. Playing the mother of Youth, Famecia Ward captured brilliantly the frustration of a parent who doesn't quite know how to understand their child, but who loves her son unconditionally as he tries to find his own way through life. As the muses (and love interests), Skyler Volpe (Marianna) and Karissa Harris (Desi), both fill a void for Youth, albeit temporarily, and do it in a powerful, yet sensitive manner. Rounding out the cast were the severely talented Garrett Turner and J'royce who effectively played a wide range of characters who help (and sometimes hinder) Youth along the way.

Directing a piece like PASSING STRANGE requires a clear sense of artistic vision and Sean Harris effectively painted a picture that engrossed and enchanted but also pushed buttons and created the right amount of discomfort (and self-discovery) as the audience experiences the highs (literal in some cases) and lows experienced by the characters on stage. Darlene Zoller's choreography fit the mood of the piece perfectly, which helped create the visual tableau to match the content being shared by the actors and musicians. From a technical perspective, Emily Nichols scenic designs and Marcus Abbot's lighting stood out in particular, especially Nichols' breakaway set that subtly hinted at the gradual stripping away of Youth's innocence.

Like any piece with existential undertones, I found myself thinking deeply at moments during the evening, and even more in the hours and days after I left the show. Many view the theater, and especially musicals, as pure entertainment. And while it certainly is entertaining, a piece like PASSING STRANGE is so much more, a collective, immersive and emotional experience that taps into something primal - the need to be, understand, and ultimately to love. It goes beyond just a few hours of entertainment, it makes you think and maybe even discover something about yourself that you didn't know before. Playhouse on Park has done this in spades in this production, and since PASSING STRANGE is not something you will find produced very often (Playhouse on Park is one of the only professional theaters to have produced the show), it is one of those truly rare opportunities to immerse yourself in a pure, unique, and electric theatrical experience.

PASSING STRANGE runs at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through December 20th. For more information, call 860-523-5900 ext 10 or visit Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT 06119

Photo credits: Rich Wagner

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