By Brian Pope
They say that youth is wasted on the young. Well, I don’t know much about the “They” who coined that cliche, but I am sure that They have not yet seen Alumni Theatre Company’s production of the poignant rock musical Passing Strange.
If They had, the actors gracing the stage and blowing the roof off of the new Bill Nunn Black Box would change Their tune. That immensely energetic ensemble (and the rock quartet that accompany them) harness the power of their youth to electrify this rarely produced oddball gem of a show.
The DNA of Passing Strange is rooted in somewhat unlikely sources: Shakespeare and rock. Co-composer/book writer/lyricist Stew may have pulled the title from a line in Othello, but the sound and tone of the show is unmistakably derived from his long career as a solo rock musician and leader of the band The Negro Problem (with co-composer Heidi Rodewald). Along with original director Annie Dorsen, they initially developed the show at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in 2004 and 2005. Productions on both coasts and many award nominations and wins followed before the show made its Broadway debut in 2008.
That season saw not one but two highly creative artists of color attempt to infuse a new sound into the Broadway milieu with their debut musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights went up against Passing Strange in virtually all of the major categories. Heights ultimately triumphed taking home Best Musical and Best Original Score, but Stew’s cleverly poetic and highly quotable work deservedly won the statuette for Best Book.
Passing Strange, or rather more directly its Narrator (James Perry), follows a young black kid born and raised by a single mom in the lap of middle class luxury in California. He is billed only as Youth (capital y) and Amaru Williams’ performance embodies this to a tee. Youth’s quest to discover, construct, and deconstruct “the real” takes him from the Baptist church pulpit to a hotboxed car on a hill to the free-loving streets of Amsterdam to the riot-ravaged streets of Berlin and back again.
Witnessing Mr. Williams’ character mature artistically and emotionally grounds the audience amidst the globe trotting narrative. Even when Youth’s struggle with his identity on both sides of the world leads to him isolating himself from the people he loves, Williams’ palpable charm and passion in numbers like “Stoned” make it impossible not to identify with him.
Both Mr. Williams and Mr. Perry share that likable quality in their acting performances as well as an inconsistency in pitch in their vocal performances. Considering that Stew originated the role of Narrator and that Strange is at least semi-autobiographical, Perry had unusually large red Chucks to fill. What his singing may occasionally lack was compensated for by his ability to modulate between the grandiose and intimate moments. Perry’s presence is gripping when he opens the show and touching when a stranger in Amsterdam gives her “Keys” to Youth in what he sees as an unfathomable act of kindness.
As effectively two halves of the same character, both Perry and Williams also create a realistically complicated bond with Mother, who DaMya Gurley firmly establishes as the beating heart of the show.
While Youth’s goal is to find himself, he also meets a host of colorful characters along the way. They range from the pothead choir director Mr. Franklin (a funny and foppish Shae Wofford) and the tough as nails German revolutionary Desi (a funny and fierce Cherish Morgan).
The true standout among the supporting cast is no doubt Emmanuel Key. As Reverend Jones, Christophe, and Mr. Venus, he transitions from fervent to flirtatious to fanatical with ease and aplomb. The only thing possibly more unhinged than his characters’ psyches might be Mr. Key’s Gumby-like physicality. His rendition of “What’s Inside Is Just a Lie” must been seen to be believed.
Key surely owes a lot of his scene-stealing movement to Ms. Morgan, who doubles as choreographer here. While Hallie Donner’s direction and the understated design elements smartly do not get in the way of the heady material or the spectacular cast, Morgan’s kaleidoscopic dances enhance and feel organic to both. Her choreography seamlessly traverses genre and mood all while engaging the entire body and the full breadth of the stage.
My primary quibble with this production is how often the lyrics and lines are collateral damage of the volume war between the actors and the band. It’s clear from the strong work of those who made this show that missing a word here or there means not only occasionally missing a punchline but also missing a valuable thematic nugget or a profound character beat.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s only one way (and the only slightly negative way in which) this relentlessly exhilarating and entertaining production leaves you wanting more. With their Passing Strange, Alumni Theatre Company proves that for them excellence is anything but a passing phase.
Passing Strange plays at the Bill Nunn Black Box through Sunday August 4. For tickets and more information, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.
Categories: Archived Reviews