Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The musical by the performer known as Stew–he wrote the book and lyrics, collaborated on the music with Heidi Rodewald, and appeared in the musical's brief Broadway run in 2008, for which he also received the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical–takes audiences inside the head of an ambitious young Black man searching for "the real" in his art and life. In format, Passing Strange is a mashup of rock concert and traditional musical anchored by a hot four-piece onstage band: conductor Marika Countouris at the keyboard, Alec Green on guitar, Jason Wilson on bass, and Angel Bethea on drums.
Narrator (Isaac "Deacon Izzy" Bell) uses poetic and flavorful language to relate the kaleidoscopic adventures of Youth (Deimoni Brewington), which borrow from Stew's own life. Beginning as a teenager in South Central Los Angeles in 1976, Youth tries on a variety of identities as he travels to hedonistic Amsterdam and politically inflamed West Berlin.
It all comes to life on Jonathan Dahm Robertson's set, a grungy performance space with graffiti (and messages important to the plot) scrawled on the walls. Alberto Segarra's lighting design and Kelly Colburn's video design add streams of color, jolts of fluorescence, and unexpected images (for example, saints depicted in stained-glass windows suddenly beginning to dance).
Bell, a DC-based musician, is making his acting debut as Narrator, but he demonstrates a natural command of the stage–and, perhaps more importantly, of the microphone. His deep voice conveys both gravitas and hard-earned wisdom. Brewington has a guileless face, a sweet voice, and an underlying innocence that takes some hits as Youth tries to figure out what road ahead is right for him.
Kara-Tameika Watkins gives a radiant performance as Mother, who doesn't always understand her son but never stops loving him and believing in him. She's able to convey her deep emotional tie with Youth even when she is most frustrated at what she sees as his unpredictable behavior.
The other performers–Michael J. Mainwaring, Imani Branch, Tobias A. Young, and Alex De Bard–are shapeshifters whose characterizations change with Danielle Preston's costume designs: sex-crazed teens, figures in a pretentious European film, anarchists in leather bondage gear, even a chance for Youth to "role-play" a Black American man for his politically radical new friends.
Passing Strange runs through June 18, 2023, at Signature Theatre, ARK Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or visit www.SigTheatre.org.
Book and lyrics by Stew