Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Jelly's Last Jam
Sadly, I missed the 2014 mounting of Passing Strange by Mixed Blood Theatre, so it was not until this week, at intrepid Yellow Tree Theatre, that I really understood all the fuss. Not having any other productions to compare it to, all I can say is that Yellow Tree breaths genuine life into Passing Strange, with performances, staging and choreography, and design work converging to deliver the show's message with an open heart, pumped up energy, and conviction.
Passing Strange was created by Stew (born Mark Stewart), a musician and leader of the group Stew and the Negro Problem, and fellow musician Heidi Rodewald. Stew wrote the book and lyrics, Rodewald composed the music, and both collaborated with original director Annie Dorson to create the finished show, based loosely on Stew's biography. It opens with a guitar-playing middle-aged narrator who introduces himself as Stew, taking us through a prologue and then calling forth the central character of the narrative, simply named Youth. It is 1976 and Youth is an African American teenager from a middle-class family residing in South Central Los Angeles. Youth, like many other youth, is fixated on a search for "the real," for the elements in life that have true value and meaning.
Youth dabbles with Zen Buddhism, but his conventional mother enjoins him to attend church with her. The minister whips others into a religious frenzy, but leaves Youth cold, as he cracks "Jesus will come back to this place before I do!". Then he hears the music of the church, and something begins to stir. A good-looking girl draws Youth into the church choir, where music becomes an avenue to explore his feelings and pursue his search for the real. He also falls into a friendship with Franklin, the choir director, as well as the minister's son, who introduces Youth to marijuana and other methods of pursuing his search through altered states.
The combination of music and altered states leads Youth into the rock scene and a band of his own, but he is still not getting close to the real. For that, he is led to believe, he must escape to a completely different environment–and off he goes to Amsterdam where life has the lightness of a soap bubble. Next is Berlin, where one easily can drown under the weight of dark politics. Everywhere, he encounters people who challenge his ideas about politics, religion, esthetics, and especially love, but in spiraling up the circuitous path toward the real, he makes himself something less than real, and willfully neglects the sources of his life: home, family, roots.
Youth's odyssey is comical in its resemblance to the ways so many of us wandered through youth in search of something real, which generally meant beyond our own ken. Also, it is comical in the fumbling awkwardness that accompanies each step of the journey. At the same time it is quite poignant, especially the allusiveness of Youth's goals, the fact that he doesn't really know what he is seeking, only what he wants to leave behind. It takes the intervention of Youth's older and wiser self–the Narrator–to sort things out and finally draw together a life that is whole and sustainable and real.
Stew's book for Passing Strange is wonderfully insightful and always compelling, while his lyrics are a blend of the patterns of everyday speech with a poetic sensibility. There is delightful playfulness as well, such as a confrontation between the teenage Youth and his mother, presented as a parody of melodramatic European art films of the 1960s, and Youth's flight to Amsterdam where we see the flight attendants from his perspective, warped by lust and the anticipation of grand adventure.
Rodewald's music is a mix of many genres–straight ahead rock and roll, electro-rock, punk, folk, show tune, rhythm and blues–and the songs are worked into the book seamlessly to present large sections of plot. A wonderful example is "My Key," a song that introduces Youth to the free-love atmosphere of Amsterdam, and continues as he finds a lover, a community, and then falls victim to his relentless search for "the real."
The show has an extremely strong cast, with Valencia Proctor capturing the impertinence and naivete of Youth as a teenager, and the continued struggle not to settle for happiness and to keep seeking a life with a depth of meaning. Malo Adams provides a constant, leveling presence as the narrator, periodically giving Youth the no-holds barred truth, but delivered with patience and empathy. Jamecia Bennett played the Mother in Mixed Blood's 2014 production and returns to the role at Yellow Tree–bringing her soaring voice and acting chops with her -but only until April 24. Siddeeqah Shabazz takes over as Mother for the final two weeks of Passing Strange's run.
The remaining cast members play multiple roles, and all perform with tremendous skill. Standouts include Michelle de Joya in the guise of Desi, Youth's lover in Berlin; Erin Nicole Farste as Marianna, Youth's lover in Amsterdam; and Maje Adams as Franklin, the sadly closeted choir director who convinces Youth to break away and see the world, something he himself can only dream of doing. As an ensemble, the actors nimbly change parts, form intricate choral groupings, and move through enticing dance sequences. Director Austene Van also choreographed the production, with such fluidity that dance emerges organically out of a scene, never feeling, as in so many musicals, "and now we will dance because it's time to insert a dance into the show".
Van makes the most of Yellow Tree's small stage, with the band set back, visible through what looks like a brick wall that has been the victim of a firebomb. Justin Hooper's simple set design is greatly enhanced by the atmospheric lighting designs of Sarah Brandner. Samantha Haddow's costumes indicate the outsider status of many of the characters, with subtle variations to distinguish outsiders in urban California from outsiders in Amsterdam and from outsiders in Berlin.
The title of the show, but the way, comes from a line in Act I of William Shakespeare's Othello. The phrase "passing strange" there means "extremely strange," which was a meaning held by the word "passing" at that time. Yes, the corners of society in which the intrepid Youth finds himself are strange, as in exotic, but the title can also refer to the notion of racial passing, a theme that comes up in unexpected ways several times throughout the show, suggesting that the usual notion of light-toned Black people passing for white is not the only form of passing that goes on.
So, now I know what the fuss over Passing Strange was about. There needs to be a whole, huge, blaring of bugles fuss made anew over Yellow Tree's staging, in collaboration with New Dawn Theatre. Everything in this production is done right, showing the triumph of artistry and dedication over a small stage and modest budget. It is a solid success, and will leave you feeling grateful for having seen it, and for whatever is "real" in your life.
Passing Strange, a co-production of Yellow Tree Theatre and New Dawn Theatre, runs through May 8, 2022, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave. SE, Osseo MN. Tickets: $31.00 - $35.00; $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+), students with valid ID, military personnel and groups of ten or more. $10.00 rush seats go on sale thirty minutes before the performance, pending availability. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Book and Lyrics: Stew; Music: Heidi Rodewald; Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen; Director and Choreographer: Austene Van; Assistant Director: Randy Reyes; Scenic Designer: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Samantha Haddow; Lighting Designer: Sarah Brandner; Music Director and Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Assistant Musical Director: Jamecia Bennett; Props Master: Julia Emery Cervera; Stage Manager: Samantha Dickman; Assistant Stage Manager: Charles Fraser.
Cast: Maje Adams (Franklin/Joop/Mr. Venus), Malo Adams (Narrator), Jamecia Bennett (Mother - through April 24, 2022), Michelle de Joya (Sherry/Renata/Desi), Erin Nicole Farste (Edwina/ Marianna/Sudabey), Valencia Proctor (Youth), Antonio Rios-Luna (Terry/Rev. Coleman/Christophe), Siddeeqah Shabazz (Mother - starting April 27, 2022).