Wilma Theater presents Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s ‘Passing Strange’

Youth's unfinished song

CAMERON KELSALL: Passing Strange has landed at the Wilma Theater in a highly anticipated new production, directed by Tea Alagić. I saw this show on Broadway 10 years ago, and although I'm wary of comparing productions, I think there's a genuine question about this musical's evolution. Originally, the Narrator was played by the show's creator, Stew; so much of the material's power derived from the rawness of him telling his story. I’m not sure it has the same punch now that it's been universalized.

A boy and his guitar: Taysha Marie Canales and Jamar Williams's Youth. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

MARK COFTA: Kris Coleman's Narrator has wit and poise, but I didn't understand his connection to the story. He's not neutral, often commenting cynically about "our hero," the central character called Youth, played well by Jamar Williams. But what's his stake in Youth's story? Maybe he's the creator, since he announces decisions like, "At this point, we were planning a show tune..." His uncertain identity didn't prevent my enjoyment, but his first line, "You don't know me, and I don't know you," is accurate, start to finish.

CK: The Narrator's stake is clear if he and Youth are one and the same — then he's not only commenting on the folly of youth (and Youth) but offering a corrective. He's practicing one of the piece's central ideas: that "time is a mistake only art can correct." (That sounds like a dorm-room poster; I often felt the show's messages were telegraphed into easily consumable soundbites).

The Narrator’s position is murkier if he’s just an omniscient figure who’s not connected to Youth. What’s the point, then, of him occupying so much of the stage? Similarly, what did you make of the presentation of the Youth's mother?

A hero's journey

MC: I admire Kimberly Fairbanks's brief portrayal of a single mom wrangling a rebellious teen. Making Youth attend church to fix him feels contrived, but it launches Youth's journey — and then she disappears, despite her importance later. Youth's later vision of Mother misfires when he imagines her in a ridiculously tawdry red gown, a Miss Kitty Gunsmoke reject. Costume designer Vasilija Zivanic's art doesn't "correct time's mistake" in this instance. 

I enjoyed Taysha Marie Canales, Savannah Jackson, Anthony Martinez-Briggs, and Lindsay Smiling, each playing three distinct characters and more. Some are broadly comic, more attributable to Stew's book than any acting excesses, but others — particularly Jackson as Youth's Amsterdam girlfriend — are rich, complex characters. All represent some point of view about love and help propel Youth's quest. 

Kris Coleman's Narrator watches as Youth makes new friends. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
Kris Coleman's Narrator watches as Youth makes new friends. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

CK: The material's greatest flaw is the lack of exploration of the mother/son relationship. It's established that Mother recognizes the phoniness of their middle-class suburban existence — she's "been running from this world for far longer than you" — and implied that she's made a conscious choice to conform to expectations. This should bond them. But we never fully understand why Mother made her choice, unless it was simply for her child.

And that opens another uncomfortable avenue: the mother-as-martyr trope, a woman sacrificing everything authentic in her life for her child. Fairbanks gives a compelling performance, but the role is frustratingly underwritten, and I don't think the concluding narrative arc is entirely earned.

The onstage band, brilliantly conducted by Amanda Morton, made the best case for the material. You could hear how Stew and his co-composer, Heidi Rodewald, blend elements of punk, rock, soul, blues, gospel, and musical theater. Morton's underscoring throughout reminded me of recitative.

The supporting cast deserves praise, but I questioned some of Smiling's overly "queeny" choices as Mr. Franklin, the flamboyantly gay preacher's son. (And don’t tell me any actual opera queen would butcher the opening of "Vissi d'arte.”) Canales is particularly compelling as Desi, whom Youth falls for in Berlin — she sees through the "mask" he's created and tries to love him for himself.

That brings me to the most interesting aspect of the show: how it deals with the construction of identity. The entire show is something of a hero's journey and is at its most successful once Youth starts to grapple with the cloudiness between who he really is and how he presents himself.

"A fun ride"

MC: I agree. Given Mother's importance, she's underwritten, and the concluding arc rings hollow. 

Throughout, the band and the music energize the show. They are — and need to be — rock-concert loud, yet lyrics are clear, thanks to Nick Kourtides's sound design. 

Smiling's Mr. Franklin impressed me; my first concern was that he would be queeny and little else. I thought the broad German revolutionaries played by Smiling, Jackson, and Martinez-Briggs likewise exceed first impressions. And Canales's Desi . . . wow.

L to R, an outstanding cast: Kris Coleman, Savannah L. Jackson, Anthony Martinez-Briggs, Jamar Williams, and Taysha Marie Canales. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
L to R, an outstanding cast: Kris Coleman, Savannah L. Jackson, Anthony Martinez-Briggs, Jamar Williams, and Taysha Marie Canales. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

The “hero's journey” aspect became clear early and sustained my interest throughout, though its emphasis on family is predictable and, due to our concerns about Mother, unsatisfying. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." Does Youth, or the audience, really know Youth or that place at the end? We're told so. I didn't feel it.

CK: Huge spoiler below.

Our last image of Youth is when he speaks at his Mother’s funeral. He alludes to their fractured relationship and his desire for forgiveness: “On the plane from Berlin to LA, I prayed for her to wait. Long enough for me to see her again. Long enough for me to hear her again. Long enough for me to tell her I’m sorry, and to mean it.”

It’s mawkish, but still a moving gesture. Yet given how much of this show deals with how we construct our identities and then perform ourselves, are we supposed to view this as another performance?

MC: It's moving, but when he conjures her in that red gown, I start doubting how much he's grown as an artist. Given that the story's supposedly being constructed by the Narrator, something more might emerge from Youth's realizations. It's a peeve of mine when stories call a character a great artist but don't provide convincing evidence. Not that it's easy, but still. 

CK: The show ends on the image of the Narrator, whose role is never clearly defined. Passing Strange builds a mask, but the audience is still unsure of what the creators want us to see. It's a fun ride, but I don’t agree with the repeated wails that "it's alright.”

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