It seems that West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park, in its seven years of existence, has always wanted to challenge itself and its audience by offering a variety of theatrical fare in many different theatrical genres in productions that revealed a consistently increasing standard in the quality of their work.
They have succeeded in demonstrating that commitment once again in their earth-shattering production of a recent Broadway musical that not too many people in the area are that familiar with: “Passing Strange,” which started out at New York’s Public Theatre and enjoyed a critically acclaimed but unfortunately short run on the Main Stem. “Passing Strange” is a book show, inspired by the life of its creator, Stew, who wrote the book and composed the rock and roll, rhythm and blues filled, punk-related score with his frequent partner, Heidi Rodewald, with the collaboration of Annie Dorsen, the show’s original director.
The music, at least to this listener, is thrilling and exciting, and the story is certainly relatable to anyone who has found the need to leave home in order to find the destiny, even if their realizations come in fits and starts. Why more people could not relate to it is beyond this reviewer, though a somewhat unusual staging that did not resemble the tropes of a typical musical and the unknown quantity that Stew was for uptown audiences may have been factors, since it was well reported that Stew was playing the main role of the Narrator himself.
But the folks at the Playhouse on Park, by whom I mean the co-Artistic Directors Sean Harris and Diane Zoller, who serve as director and choreographer, respectively, and their world-class cast, prove that “Passing Strange” is not only a great musical, but one that can have and certainly deserves further life on stages across the country. The evening represents a major step forward for the Playhouse—if they can continue to produce shows that can offer this much excitement and insight, then they deserve to be considered in the same mention alongside the state’s far more established professional regional theaters.
Harris and Zoller have restaged “Passing Strange” in the thrust setting of the Playhouse on Park, with occasional forays up and down the aisles of the audience, differing from the sort of in-the-round setting at the Public Theatre. The musicians are poised together at the back of the stage, rather than in each of the four corners of the stage, as was done in off-Broadway, and the Narrator, freed from playing an instrument, is here able to roam about the stage and directly interact with the cast and ensemble more easily. With the Narrator now able to maneuver to all sides of the thrust stage, the musical’s book and trajectory comes into better focus, and allows the audience to feel closer to the Youth’s (as the Narrator’s younger self is called) emotional journey from south central Los Angeles to the revolutionary movements in Paris and eventually Berlin in the 60’s and 70’s, where he ultimately realizes that his future is in his song, essentially his path as a musician.
The Playhouse has also found a remarkable music director in Michael Morris who with his musicians, Nick Cutroneo (guitar), Sean Rubin (bassist) and Elliott Wallace on drums, provide clear but appropriately rambunctious but not overwhelming accompaniment for the performers on stage. And what performers they are! “Passing Strange” represents some of the most inspired casting ever encountered at the Playhouse to a person.
A good deal of the hard work sits on the shoulders of Darryl Jovan-Williams, who as the Narrator, serves as a Master of Ceremonies and commentator, as well as the singing and dancing storyteller who keeps the plot moving, introduces the characters and scenes, and in his broad confident voice, leads most of musical numbers. Jovan-Williams may resemble a more compact Stew, but he makes the part his own, charming the audience with his contagious good spirits and wisdom, while guiding us on this quite intimate glimpse into a young musician’s development. Jovan-Williams can dance up a storm when necessary and it is fun to see him jump into a number alongside the ensemble.
Equally dynamic in a quietly intense way is Eric R. Williams as the Youth, evincing the young man’s feelings of being limited under his mother’s caring, watchful eye that has protected him from much of life’s sufferings. Williams plays the Youth as open to new adventures, as when he joins the church choir after being moved by the rhythm, yet able to grasp a new situation when the choir director, the pastor’s son, comes on to the Youth a bit too strong. Williams conveys the Youth’s growing confidence as he forms a band and gets more involved in music, to the point when he feels he needs to leave his middle-class cocoon and get some experiences to write about in his music. He is very believable as he guiltily resists his mother’s requests that he come home and quickly moves in with new acquaintances, often playing on a fabricated ghetto life to feel part of whatever radical movement he encounters.
Although Williams and Jovan- Williams are the two equity cast members, the supporting bench is just as sturdy. Famecia Ward is terrific as the Youth’s Mother, exhibiting great vocal skills in several numbers, along with substantial acting chops as she expertly balances between being the directive single parent and the confused, yearning mother who didn’t anticipate this type of journey for her son.
The members of the ensemble fulfill a variety of supporting roles with style and class, notably Skyler Volpe and Karissa Harris, who among their roles play two women who become sexually involved with the Youth, one in Amsterdam and the other in Berlin. They both have lovely duets with the Youth, and impress with their German accents, which come off as comfortably realistic. The two male members of the Ensemble, Garrett Turner and J’Royce, are quickly impressive as quick-change artists, who transform into any number of characters, including Turner’s turn as an avant-avant-garde artist confronting his audience in the amusingly catchy “What’s Inside Is Just A Lie.” All four are marvelous dancers and seem to delight in Zoller’s clever choreography which frequently arises surreptitiously from within a song and then pleasantly overwhelms the Playhouse’s stage.
Emily Nichols’ set features a large platform across the back of the set on which the band sits and which the performers occasionally climb to provide backup vocals or offer some commentary on the action just below. There is also what appears a square scrim at the back, which changes color depending upon the music and the scene, part of Marcus Abbott’s vivid lighting plan. It turns out that there’s a wooden wall behind that scrim, whose planks and components, in an inspired bit of stage business, get stripped in order to create chaos on the thrust stage. Kate Bunce’s costumes are a mix of Broadway style basics, with a nod toward the 80’s and 90’s styles, which work well with Zoller’s dances.
“Passing Strange” provides a great opportunity for those unfamiliar with Stew’s and Heidi’s score or those who may have been mystified by it the first time they encountered to appreciate the cleverness and beauty of so much of the music. Some of the more memorable include the driving opening number “We Might Play All Night” performed by the Narrator with the Band—and just based upon the strength of this number, we’d be willing to let them. There’s the clever wordplay in “Amsterdam” in which phrases that end in “I am” segue right into the word “Amsterdam.” The Youth has a playful duet with Volpe’s Marianna on “Keys” which moves into the funny “We Just Had Sex” which Karissa Harris’s Renata turns into a trio. And “Starting to Feel the Real” has such a powerful beat with lyrics that grab that it may be the candidate for the earworm with which one leaves the theater.
“Passing Strange,” which takes its title from a line of Othello’s in the Shakespearean play of that name, indicates that one’s adventures and experience may have exceeded merely being unusual, going past being able to be called just strange. And with the adventures of a young black man who discovers that it is somewhat easier to be himself in Europe than in the United State, the notion of “passing” takes on an extra level of resonance.
This production of “Passing Strange” should be on everyone’s radar for two significant reasons. First, to discover this originally underrated musical that introduces local audiences to the music of Stew and Heidi which is both powerful and enthralling. Second, by seeing how the Playhouse on Park is able to resurrect this musical and afford it an interpretation and production that fulfills the work’s original promise, which should give audiences an idea of the level and quality of productions that the Playhouse on Park is capable of producing. You will be amazed and impressed, I can assure you.
“Passing Strange” continues at the Playhouse on Park through Sunday, December 20. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 860.523.5900, ext. 10 or visit the theater’s website at www.playhouseonpark.org.