Review: PASSING STRANGE at Portland Playhouse

This wild, exuberant roller coaster ride of a musical makes for a fabulous night at the theatre.

By: May. 03, 2024
Review: PASSING STRANGE at Portland Playhouse
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PASSING STRANGE, a comedy-drama rock musical about a young African American man trying to find his place in the world, had been on my radar since it made a splash on Broadway in 2008, winning a handful of Drama Desk and Tony Awards. I can’t believe it has taken me 16 years to finally get a chance to see it, but believe me when I say it was worth the wait! Portland Playhouse’s production of this wild, exuberant roller coaster ride of a musical makes for a fabulous night at the theatre.

Set mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, the show, with book and lyrics by Stew, and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald is a big, bold musical about both the big, bold things and also the quiet, intimate things one has to figure out as part of becoming an adult. The central character, referred to as Youth, is a young Black man learning to navigate the world as he explores the various aspects of his identity – as an artist, a young man, a Black man, an American, and so on – in an effort to find “the real.” His journey takes him from his childhood home in Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Berlin, from church to sex, drugs, and performance art. The story is narrated by a character named Stew, who provides insights into Youth’s mindset from the perspective of someone older and wiser.

With musical direction by Kennedy Verrett, the show is often loud and raucous, punctuated by soft, introspective moments. The musical journey perfectly mirrors the physical and emotional journey from teenager to early twentysomething. There were many times I was dancing in my seat, happy for the opportunity to stand up, clap, and sing along, as well as times I needed to reach for a tissue and the hand of my partner sitting beside me.

The cast of just seven people brings big stage energy to Portland Playhouse’s small space. In the role of Youth, Charles Grant gives a tour-de-force performance. He is on stage for almost every minute of the show, infusing the role with the unique mix of confidence-arrogance, insecurity-confusion, and angst that defines that time of life. Jasonica Moore, who, as Stew, is also on stage for nearly the entire show, not only slays her many songs, but balances the youthful energy with the voice of experience. The rest of the excellent cast is made up of LaRhonda Steele as Mother, with Jelani Kee, Lauren Steele, Delphon "DJ" Curtis Jr., and Andrea Vernae all playing multiple roles.

PASSING STRANGE brilliantly captures the strangeness, beauty, agony, and joy of self-discovery. I absolutely loved it. This production runs through May 26. Details and tickets here.

Photo credit: Shawnte Sims


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