Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Combining traditional musical theatre with performance art and poetry slam, Passing Strange follows the story of a young, lost, black man from L.A., simply called "Youth," who has to travel to Europe to learn about acceptance. Along the way he experiments with drugs, has encounters with an assortment of characters, and adapts, learns and grows from these experiences.
The score by Stew (aka Mark Stewart) and Heidi Rodewald is a mix of R&B, funk, pop, rock, and the blues. However, the repetitive lyrics and false rhymes are sloppy and, though most of the score is catchy, not much of it will resonate with you once you leave the theatre. The story, which is based somewhat on Stew's past, is also simple and somewhat unoriginal. It is also a little pretentious in how the main character is called "Youth" while every other character in the show has an actual name. The ending of both acts is somewhat unfocused and there are some messy moments along the way.
From Candide to Pippin, we've already seen the story of the journey of a young man who has to go away from home to learn that what he needs most was right back where he started. Heck, even The Wizard of Oz is basically the same story, albeit without the drug use and free love scenes. Fortunately, while the "there's no place like home" feeling doesn't come until late in act two, the struggle of this young man who escapes to discover who he is will resonate with anyone who has ever grappled with finding a place to belong and a "tribe" to call their own. It also doesn't devolve into the standard clichés of the many "coming of age" tales that have come before.
Director Jeff Kennedy draws inspiring performances from his cast, many of whom play multiple roles. He also infuses the bare stage with an energy and excitement that, with the addition of Charles St. Clair's exceptional lighting, helps pinpoint the action and achieves a clear connection between the actors and the audience. Kennedy also wisely keeps the Narrator of the story, who is the grown up version of the Youth, always present and included in the action so that his interruptions, corrections to the story, and knowledge of the events never seem out of sync as things unfold around him. The intimacy of the Kax Stage at the Herberger Theatre Center also adds another element of connectivity between story, cast and audience.
Miguel Jackson and Matravius Avent are exceptional as the Narrator and the Youth. Jackson skillfully guides us through the Youth's story with a knowing wink and a sobering, confidential delivery of his narrative. Jackson's clear tempo and rhythmic delivery allow the Narrator's poetic words to float through the air with grace and beauty. His direct, soft-spoken style also lets us know that everything will be all right in the end. Avent is very good as the angry young black man who is struggling with his identity and trying to find a way in his middle-class world to figure out who he is and to find his "blackness." We see the "Youth" change and grow from his learned experiences throughout the show, which is a testament to Avent's portrayal. As his Mother, DeAngelus Grisby is heartbreaking, distinct, and warm. The four other cast members play a variety of roles, with Krystal Pope and Jacqueline Castillo delicious as the two women the Youth falls in love with in Europe, and Micah Deshazer and John Batchan skillful in their portrayals with Batchan, creating quite an impression as the closeted gay son of a pastor. All seven have stellar singing voices that make the songs soar.
Slightly eccentric, somewhat pretentious and often saying very little while at other times saying a lot, Passing Strange is a very funny, charming, and sincere musical unlike just about any other. Even with the shortfalls of the story and the mostly unforgettable score, it still tells a truthful story of acceptance and self-discovery that blends the past with the present by having an older man narrate the story of his own youthful journey. iTheatre Collaborative's production may not appeal to everyone, but those looking for a musical that is fresh and vibrant, with an exceptionally gifted cast, will find much to like.
iTheatre Collaborative's Passing Strange runs through February 21st, 2016, with performances downtown at the Herberger Theater Center through February 13th and performances at ASU West on February 18 21, 2016 (tickets for the ASU shows can be found at asuevents.asu.edu). Information for this show and upcoming productions can also be found at www.itheatreaz.org.
Director: Jeff Kennedy