Signature Theatre’s “Passing Strange” showcases shrewd technical judgment and strong performances.
“Passing Strange,” the Tony Award-winning autobiographical musical from Stew, got its first post-Broadway revival here in D.C. at Studio Theatre 13 years ago. Now, the combustible new production directed by Raymond O. Caldwell has opened at Signature Theatre’s 99-seat Ark space, making this the first time “Passing Strange” has been staged locally since.
The show bears more than a, uh, passing resemblance — in name and in nature — to the even more celebrated “A Strange Loop,” which had a pivotal staging at Woolly Mammoth at the end of 2021 before running on Broadway for nine months last year.
Both are heavily self-referential pieces about young Black men struggling to manifest a songwriting and storytelling talent they’re certain they possess while reflexively dismissing everything around them — including their loving families, tragically — as phony. And while Stew is a generation older than “A Strange Loop” creator Michael R. Jackson, both men bristle at confining and stereotypical notions of Blackness, and more specifically at a rigid idea of Black masculinity that neither the straight protagonist of “Passing Strange” nor the queer one of “A Strange Loop” find useful or inviting. (“Passing Strange” even has a scene where two young Black men sharing a joint contemplate whether they’re merely passing as Black, right around the same time one of them quits the church youth choir to form a punk band called The Scaryotypes.)
Both shows also eschew specificity in peculiar ways: The aspiring musical theatre composer at the center of “A Strange Loop” is supporting himself as an usher at “The Lion King” (phony, obviously), so he’s called Usher. Stew, meanwhile, gives the forty-something version of himself who narrates “Passing Strange” the nom-de-guerre of Narrator, while he calls his more youthful self, whom we follow from his early adolescence to his mid-twenties, Youth. But these characters would be recognizable as archetypes even if they had real names.
Navel-gazing goes down much easier in song or verse than in prose, and all this self-mythologizing would be every bit as insufferable as it probably sounds were the songs of “Passing Strange” — which Stew composed with his frequent collaborator Heidi Rodewald, while the book and lyrics are credited to Stew alone — not shot through with all the buoyancy and impatience of youth, and of Youth.
“Passing Strange” begins in 1976 Los Angeles and moves on to Reagan-era Amsterdam and Berlin, so the musical stew in which Stew marinates is still dominated by R&B, FM rock and chilly New Wave. Hip-hop is starting to happen, but it hasn’t crossed the Atlantic yet. The rock trio that musical director and keyboardist Marika Countouris has assembled for Signature makes this material sound urgent and funky. It’s also balanced perfectly for the concrete-walled Ark, so it never sounds like it’s competing with the lyrics. Every technical aspect of the show exhibits this same shrewd judgment: Kelly Colburn’s video projections provide temporal signposts and offer atmospheric enhancement without ever pulling focus from the uniformly strong cast. The stained glass windows of Youth’s church don’t need to dance, but it’s cool that they do.
Our narrator, Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell, a veteran performer new to musical theatre, is marvelously attuned to the emotional requirements of each song, exhibiting as much discretion as power. He doesn’t look much like his younger alter-ego Deimoni Brewington, who makes his rubbery face a half-painted canvas, but that doesn’t matter. They’re surrounded by a simpatico company of ringers: Signature regular Alex De Bard (also the show’s dance captain) and Tobias A. Young, in particular, have flashes of star charisma in the trio of roles each plays, but both are generous scene partners, dialing down their magnetism when the show needs audience eyes elsewhere.
The show’s clearest expression of its search for identity comes when Youth, desperate to prove his revolutionary cred to the West Berlin art-punks he’s staying with, dresses himself in chains to create a character for their cabaret called Mr. Middle Passage. Both the narrator and Desi (Imani Branch), the art-punk Youth is sleeping with at the time, call him on the fact that he hasn’t suffered as horribly as so many of his forebears and contemporaries have and will. Youth had a nurturing home and a devoted mother (called “Mother,” of course; Kara-Tameika Watkins makes a powerful impression in her handful of scenes), whose unconditional love he mistook for a lack of imagination. It’s with the recognition of this mistake that Youth blossoms into maturity, and that “Passing Strange” blooms anew. It’s 13 years older and as youthfully impatient as ever.
“Passing Strange” is playing at Signature Theatre through June 18. Tickets can be purchased here.
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