BWW Review: PASSING STRANGE at Firehouse Theatre Rocks with Talent
Richmond gets better theater than we deserve. How else to explain the unfilled seats at Firehouse Theatre for the second weekend of "Passing Strange"? The outrageously gifted and energetic ensemble rocking this musical clearly thrilled those lucky enough to be in the audience.
Rock musician Stew and his wife Heidi Rodewald-members of the band The Negro Problem-wrote "Passing Strange" as a kind of autobiography of Stew, looking back in his forties at the young man he was in his early twenties. The musical premiered at Berkeley Rep in 2006, went on to The Public Theatre in New York the next year, and transferred to Broadway in 2008, winning several awards. The show was created in collaboration with its original director, Annie Dorsen.
Stew's character is split into the Youth-his young self-and the Narrator, who comments on events in the story. The Youth, a black kid living a comfortable 1970s middle-class life in Los Angeles with his church-going mother, finds music as a calling and is initiated into a life of art by his pastor's flamboyant son, the pot-smoking choir director Mr. Franklin. Mr. Franklin sends the Youth off on the quest he himself never had the courage to pursue-to Europe in search of another kind of life and a new freedom.
In benevolent Amsterdam the Youth get his mind blown by omnipresent weed and free love, and then he moves on to harsh Berlin, where he worms his way into a performance art collective by passing as a hardened ghetto banger.
The unique feature of this trajectory is the jazz-inflected rock score, performed here by a killer onstage quartet under the direction of keyboardist Leilani Fenick. Jimmy Fecteau's sound design doesn't quite make all the lyrics clear, but the music is great, part of a storytelling lineage between Frank Zappa's work and "Hamilton."
There's a terrific ensemble, with most of the actors playing multiple roles. Keaton Hillman is perfectly callow as the Youth, and he has the most expressive arms and hands you're likely to see. Jamar Jones brings power and presence to his characters, including the L.A. pastor and a German performance artist. Katrinah Carol Lewis is sexy and wonderful as Desi, the Youth's instructor in love, and Dylan Jones is both a luscious teenage temptress and an openhearted Dutch girl. Patricia Alli plays the Youth's mother with great warmth, and Keydron Dunn is spectacular in all his roles-you can't take your eyes off him.
Above all, Jeremy V. Morris is amazing as the Narrator, with a rueful but loving attitude toward his younger incarnation and a completely natural delivery-it always seems like he's pouring this story out of his own memories. He has the forward-facing performance style of Stew himself-an unlikely rock star, as a middle-aged black guy in a suit and hat, but a rock star nonetheless.
There's great, colorful lighting by Bill Miller and a fun rock-show set by Chris Raintree, with good costumes by Alex Valentin. And Tawnya Pettiford-Wates' direction is impressive. This is not an easy show to recreate; there's swirling motion and pounding music throughout, a lot of characters to manage, but she does it with seeming effortlessness. "Passing Strange" is effective and affecting, and it should not be missed.
"Passing Strange" at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St.
Through October 18
Tickets $30-$45 (general), $25-$30 (military/RVATA), $20 (student)
Info: (804-355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
Photo credit--Bill Sigafoos