BWW Reviews: New Line Theatre's Superb Production of PASSING STRANGE
Just about every artist or creative type struggles with their home situation. It's truly a rare thing when your family actually nurtures your abilities rather than points you toward something more practical, or rather, something you can supposedly make a living doing ( I know mine didn't exactly support my acting aspirations). So, it's not uncommon for them to want to leave the nest and seek out like minded individuals who also possess their creative drive and spark. In Passing Strange, playwright, composer and lyricist Stew (aka Mark Stewart, who shares composing credit with Heidi Rodewald) narrates a fictionalized account of his own experiences searching for some kind of reality he could identify with, and while it may be necessary to take the journey, sometimes the answers are really inside of you the whole time. This production by New Line Theatre provides a passionate experience, emboldened by excellent performances and top notch direction, and driven by superb work from the musicians playing the tuneful score.
Stew, through the voice of the narrator, uses Youth as a sort of everyman to explain how he made the transformation from stoned teenager to accomplished composer and the writer of an entertaining musical. When his mother drags him to church he gets involved in the youth choir, and oddly enough, gets his first taste of pot. The minister's son fills his head with far out ideas that color his perceptions and start him on his journey of self-discovery. But while the minister's son is kept on a short leash, Youth's newly expanded conscious leads him to start up a punk band, drop acid, and travel to Amsterdam and Berlin. Along the way he continues to search for "the real", but finds himself moving from one kind of "family" to another. Eventually, he returns home, older and wiser for having made the trip and lived the life for a couple of years, but truly changed internally by the loss of his mother.
Charles Glenn does terrific work as the Narrator, deftly guiding the action and, in the process, delivering some supremely sweet vocal performances. Keith Parker is also quite strong as Youth, adapting to the various changes his travels and travails put him through and is, likewise, vocally gifted. Talichia Noah excels as his mother, a middle-class black woman who only seems to want to see her son happy and stable. You can feel her heart break as she attempts to communicate to him through long distance phone calls to Europe and finds herself rebuffed.
Jeanitta Perkins, Andrea Purnell, John Reed II, and Cecil Washington, Jr. play all the peripheral characters that Youth encounters at home and abroad, and they produce beautiful vocals and well-crafted characterizations that add enormously to the overall experience.
Director Scott Miller does his usual fine work bringing these elements together in engaging fashion. This is a memorable show that should have broad appeal. Todd Schaefer contributes a simple scenic design, with a brick backdrop, that allows the focus to remain fully on the characters, and Kenneth Zinkl's lighting makes sure the mood and atmosphere are just right for each moment. Amy Kelly's costumes are smartly designed, adding just a few accoutrements to define each of the performers as they switch from role to role.
Justin Smolik (piano/conductor), D. Mike Bauer (guitar), Aaron Doerr (guitar), Dave Hall (bass), and Clancy Newell (percussion) once again prove their worth by providing a tight and balanced sound that fits perfectly.
Passing Strange is a must-see for all young artists, but it's equally worthy of attention by the entire theatre-going crowd, since it's incredibly captivating and involving, and filled with great music.