Thursday, July 17, 2008

Passing Strange

Catherine had said several times this season that she wanted to see Passing Strange. Sadly, if I don't have to see something—usually because someone I know is in it, wrote it, directed it or produced it—I rarely pay much attention to what's going on uptown; I could tell you what's on at HERE or P.S. 122 much better than what's on Broadway (apparently, Cats has closed). So I really knew nothing about the show other than what I'd heard in t.v. and radio commercials, which didn't intrigue me all that much: the music in the ads were all ballads from the show—I suppose because someone thought they'd be more palatable to the general public. Earlier this year, Ralph and his girlfriend, Emma, saw the show and both loved it, which made me more interested, but we still didn't actually make the effort and get tickets.

This past May, Stew and the cast performed something from the show at the Obie awards. When I saw it listed in the program, I still wasn't very enthusiastic—I was expecting a sweet pop ballad—so frankly, I thought it might be a good time to take a bathroom break. Thank god I didn't have to go! The medley they sang ended with "Keys (It's All Right)," which is anything but sweet, pop or a ballad: it's pretty much a kick-ass rock song and it completely blew me away (providing Catherine with a "See, I told you! Why don't you listen to me?" opportunity).

Despite winning Best Musical Obie, Drama Desk and NY Drama Critics Circle awards, the show only received one Tony®, for the book. Ultimately, the audiences just weren't big enough to fill the Belasco Theater, so the show is set to close this Sunday, the 20th. We got tickets for the performance last Saturday night and it was by far the best time I've had on Broadway this year. It's not a big show (David Korins' Light Wall, right, notwithstanding): just 6 incredibly gifted actors, 4 equally strong musicians and Stew as narrator; it's very simply staged and the different locations are indicated using lighting and just a few chairs. The band is onstage throughout the piece and interacts with the actors from time to time—sometimes responding to them, sometimes giving them a prop or an instrument to play.

While the story is familiar—a variation on the prodigal son, really—it's not ultimately what you say but how you say it in the theatre that matters most. Stew tells us his personal journey through his own narration, songs and scenes performed by the actors. For the most part, he is an observer of the action: a commentator who offers us an insight and awareness into the truth of the moment that the characters are usually incapable of having (I say usually because there are times where the actors get to step out of a moment and talk directly to us, too). With a musical, of course, it's in the songs that the piece stands or falls, and this score is exceptional— rich, intelligent lyrics that keep the show moving and diverse musical influences from pop to punk to performance art (which was done with humor but, most important and rare for mainstream theater, done well). I haven't bought an original cast album in over 20 years—I got this one off iTunes Monday morning and have already listened to it a couple of times through.

Fortunately for those of you who can't get to New York this weekend, Spike Lee is going to film the matinee and evening performances this Saturday, July 19th. It appears that he's planning it as a film of the stage production, maintaining the concert-style performance and theatrical conventions, rather than attempting to represent the characters naturalistically. Personally, I think that's the best way for this piece, especially with regard to the four actors who play multiple roles—African-Americans who frequently represent characters that are clearly caucasian; they deserve to have their wonderful performances seen as they were intended to be seen.

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