NEW YORK - In a theater landscape of mid-weight, pre-sold hits that left critics muttering that the
musical isn't even good enough to insult, something neither safe nor sorry but witty and loud snuck in the side door at the off-Broadway Public Theater.
The show is Passing Strange, a part-narrated, part-dramatized musical odyssey about an African American musician's search for identity - with wicked self-irony - amid artsy circles of Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Berlin. The question is if it will be properly noticed: Author-narrator-protagonist Michael Stewart (known as just "Stew") isn't well known on this coast. Buzz may be stunted by the fact that some Passing Strange ticketholders are there as part of a package deal with the now-closed Kevin Kline King Lear (that's how I stumbled on it).
You can spot the Lear people: They're in the front row holding their ears, though Passing Strange is hardly earsplitting, and unfolds in classic Broadway structure. Imported from Berkeley, Calif., the show moves with confidence and searing insight from event to event, powered by a score, co-written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, whose tone and style hit the needed dramatic targets without fail.
The narration by the rotund, droll Stew melds flawlessly with the dramatic action. And that's a minor miracle - usually you want either the narrator or everybody else to go away. Here, you wouldn't do without either: The six-member cast (most notably Colman Domingo, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Eisa Davis) slips effortlessly in and out of multiple American, Dutch and German characters.
The band pumps out well-wrought mainstream rock tinged with rhythm & blues, plus pastiches of punk and psychedelia that also leave leeway for character complexity. Smartly staged by Annie Dorsen, the band performs in full view at times but descends on stage elevators to make way for narrative, which finds its musical voice in Stew's mid-'60s Bob Dylan-style declamation.
The shifting musical styles and locales are the paradoxical framework for action that is essentially interior. Leaving his churchgoing mama in Los Angeles, the central character (dubbed "The Youth," and winningly played by Daniel Breaker) is off to find "the real," a concept hatched during marijuana-inspired conversations about life and/or art that's individual, not formulized or received. It's a '60s thing - when people abandoned family roots, often trading one conformity for another. In Passing Strange, characters reveal who they are through what they think they are.
The power of pretension leads inexorably to the supposedly raw but now hilariously artificial world of performance art. As in The Wizard of Oz, "the real" isn't in Munchkinland (which, in Passing Strange, is Amsterdam) or at the wicked witch's castle (Berlin) but home (Los Angeles). Not that Passing Strange promotes thinking small. It preaches building on foundations that are uniquely yours. The model is the show's score, with many sources but its own charismatic synthesis.