Encore Michigan

‘Passing Strange’ is electric at Detroit Public Theatre

Review May 11, 2023 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI–Praise God. A new musical with heart, wit, solid music and a clever story.

Okay. Passing Strange is not a “new” musical, though it is new to Michigan. The rock musical first mounted a run in New York in 2008. It is not a show that is frequently done, though, and that is a shame. Perhaps it is not escapist enough for most theatre marketing people.

Passing Strange is the story of a black artist in search of himself, while boxing expectations of his Mother and his community. It’s a rock musical, but not everything is sung.

And that is a good thing because some of the themes and ideas are better said than sung. Is our artist, billed simply as “Youth,” too black? Not black enough? Too White? Is he really a creature of the ‘hood? Is his “art” any good? Does he owe anything to the Mother who has raised him, protected him and loved on him for twenty years? Does church or God matter to him? To anyone? Is he authentic or a poser? Is he grateful, or feeling entitled

The strength of Passing Strange is that the questions, the responses, the feelngs are more real than dramatic.

“Youth” (Bereket Mengistu) actually grew up pretty comfortably in Los Angeles. He embraces Zen Buddhism and punk music, not the Baptist church his Mother attends in her Sunday finery and not the hip-hop that his peers cleave to.

The fact that Youth is black is almost incidental to the story, though it is obviously contextual to the experience of author Stew. But angst, rebellion, peer pressure, emotional struggle is as common to 20-year olds of every gender, race and culture as acne, romantic rejection and wondering the meaning of the life ahead of them.

The universality of the memoir story, indeed, is its strength. It makes sense in any language. And the music, as well as the author’s whole approach to the music, works on every continent.

The Narrator (Lee Palmer) is meant to be the older version of Youth, and is an often funny commentator on the boy who seems to him to be so unapologetically focused on himself. It’s as if he is being shown his Youth by a Ghost of Christmas Past; the fact that there is a scene in which Youth mocks the idea of going home for Christmas to see his Mother was maybe an homage to Dickens.?

Youth’s story is flanked and told by an ensemble of first-rate actors whose stage energy propels the narrative all around Youth, his Mother and The Narrator. Colin Carswell plays Reverend Jones, who is as well versed in pot as he is the gospels, as well as Joop and Hugo, two characters in the Amsterdam scene Youth is part of in the second act. Ben Will is very funny with a big presence as Mr. Franklin (the choir director) and Christophe (a sex worker) and Mr. Venus, an over-the-top protester in Berlin. Lulu Fall radiates and is very versatile inhabiting “teenage goddess” Edwina , as well as one of Youth’s hippie friends in Amsterdam and a Marxist revolutionary in Berlin. Samara Naier also shows great versatility, switching between a member of Youth’s punk-rock band and an abstract performance artist.

Monica J. Palmer plays Youth’s Mother, the kind of woman on whom the axis of the Earth seems to spin. She has watched, held, protected and taught Youth for his two decades since being delivered from her womb.

Directed and cast superbly by Director John Sloan III, the band is on the stage behind the actors, and is very integral to the experience. Brian E. Buckner directs the music and is a presence on stage, as well. Buckner is practically without peer in his field in Michigan because of his ability to direct the music for any show, act, coach up singers, sing, compose when called on. His is supported by Dionna Beavers on drums, Ben Willis and Takashi Iio on bass and Liz Larin on guitar.

The ensemble of technical artists is just as strong as the actors and musicians. The set, by Monika Essen, is simple and adaptable with a block of glass panels behind the band that are integrated with the lighting. The stage is divided into three performance areas that help establish geography, as in when Youth and his friends are in the center, and his Mother is off on the left side mini-stage back in LA. Ericc Jordan Wells is the light designer. Reyana Patterson handles costumes and props. Lumumba Reynolds is on sound design. Carollette Phillips is choreographer, which is a big order in this show because of the punk performing and dance.

Whether you want to call it a rock musical or rock opera, playright Stew and his music writing partner Heidi Rodewald have created a lively and very compelling memoir show about Stew’s early life that is real, authentic, not stagey.

The songs have ben written in service of the story and narrative. They aren’t tacked on or just there to give the actors a stand-and-sing opportunity. It is as if a theatrical marketing department, which can dumb these projects down, has never been given that chance. And that is a very good thing.