No Stranger to ‘Passing Strange’

“Passing Strange,” the first revival of the hit off-Broadway beyond-category musical now getting a jolting production on Studio Theatre’s 2nd Stage, really is passing strange.

It has the powerful quality of being familiar at some universal level that goes beyond its specific time, place and people, and yet, taken at face value, it’s fresh, original, musically and physically vibrant, ungainly, loud, innocent and knowing all at once. It’s like some time machine from another planet where the occupants jump out jamming, playing new notes you can’t remember but know by heart.

The musical — created by the artist known as “Stew” and Heidi Rodewald — has quite a fine pedigree: workshopped at the Sundance Institute and premiered at Berkeley Rep in California, it made a big splash both on Broadway and off and picked up a handful of Tony nominations and awards, including 2008 Drama Desk Award for best musical and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical.

In a lot of ways, “Passing Strange” is part of the canon of an age-old literary device deployed by everyone from Werther to Wolfe (Thomas) to Hemingway to Joyce to “Almost Famous.” At its most elemental, it’s a recount of the coming-of-age travails and journeys of a young artist, a 1970s African American version, to be exact.

But in one way, the best way, this production feels, plays and makes the audience feel as if the whole couple of hours had been lived and imagined right on the spot, as if the pumping, jumping, wailing rock band and youthful, mostly black cast had just invented themselves right here and now. This is an engaging production that, passing strange and all, invites you in, regardless of race or color, age or whatever.

Briefly, it’s about a young, pre-rap black man, rebellious, restless, raised in relative safety in middle class Los Angeles, trying to find the “real,” his authenticity as an artist in the 1970s.

His trip is narrated by his older, later self, taking him from a reefer-smoking choir member in his church to his first lust and love in Europe by way of Amsterdam and a bellicose Berlin, where art is radical, political and just as hard to define as on a street corner in LA.

It’s a musical journey, often humiliating, funny and enlightening, one in which the young man, full of himself and new experience but without a clue or guide, parades his own alluring inexperience and his new friend flock through the mess. Experience stings and has its price — listen to such numbers as “The Black One,” “We Just Had Sex” or “Come Down Now.”

The music itself is pure power-driven rock and funk provided by keyboardist Christopher Youstra and his band.
The young man and his wiser self complement and comment on each other and engage the audience throughout the show, the lanky, breathless, high-energy Aaron Reeder as “Youth” alongside the guitar-slinging, rough-voiced and hypnotic Jahl L. Kersey as “Narrator.”

Three women take on equal power poles in the show: Deidra LaWan Starnes as the boy’s mother, who has an affecting, much-too-rare emotional power when she’s on the stage, Jessica Francis Dukes as the sweetly appealing free-spirited Marianna and Deborah Lubega as the rough-and-ready, punked-out Desi.

Here’s a shout-out to Director Keith Alan Baker, who over the years has staged such soul-rattling musicals as “Hair,” “Jerry Springer: The Opera” and “Reefer Madness: The Musical!”, and has topped himself here.

There’s certain knowing qualities and references in the show — a song about avant-garde French movie director Jean Luc Godard and talk about “Jimmie Baldwin,” the late, great African American novelist and essayist who wrote the book(s) on black exile and authenticity (“Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Nobody Knows My Name,” “Another Country”) long ago.

In the end, like so many youthful journeys, self-knowledge often comes from clicking your heels: look homeward, youth, there’s no place like you-know-where, or in this case, in a rousing number called “It’s All Right”.

Go there. You’ll meet somebody you know, most likely yourself.

“Passing Strange” is at the Studio Theatre’s 2nd Stage through Aug. 8.

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